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Some thoughts on Whitley and the role of theological education

When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.

Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.

Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.

In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and clichéd hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.

In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurture leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.

That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.

As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.

Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.

 

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A year on

The anniversary of mum’s death has come and gone. Oddly, there were no feelings on the day, no profound moments or tears. Perhaps my life is too full of other things. It certainly moves on.

I did visit the graveside the month before. I took flowers. It was a visit of choice, not need. Truth be told, I didn’t want to go. All that dirt and grass and quiet. I walked. I stood. I knelt. I even prayed. But it was just a grave. A simple plaque was laid to mark her spot and I was glad of it. Dad’s choice and just enough. But the day itself was grey, the ground damp, and all around the plots filled by strangers.

I do miss her. A year on and I miss her smile and the soft, loose skin of her cheeks. I miss her hands, her touch, those clandestine whisperings of pride and devotion. For mum there was never a thought or a feeling hidden for long. I do miss her. But for me there are no particular days that contain her, no sites that hold who she was. Somehow I find her most clearly inside of me. She inhabits my life. I look in the mirror and I see her. I look at my daughter and I see her. I look at my dad and I know her presence so tangibly … and her absence too.

Theologian David Ford suggests that the question ‘Who am I?’ leads us straight to the people who are part of us: ‘We find ourselves partly by remembering those who are most deeply woven into us.’ It’s true. My mother is woven into the stuff of who I am. To remember her is to know myself better. The Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail writes of someone similarly woven into his life. With a small change of pronoun, the words say something about mum that resonates.

I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
her unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in her praise all is possible.

Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I’ll still
strum the chord of her assurance,
that music I’ll make my own,
an old resonance I’ll summon up.

 

David Ford, The Shape of Living, Baker, 1997, 31.

Michael O’Siadhail, Hail! Madam Jazz, Bloodaxe, 1992, 84.

Wordless-Wednesday

Wordless

It’s been a while.

Though I’ve done this blogging thing for a decade +, seasons of quiet are par for the course. I’m not sure why: weariness, busyness, distraction, not much to say. Or all of the above. For whatever reason, the last four months have disappeared – wordless – without a trace.

It’s not just the blogging. Journaling, poetry, reading: it’s been zip on all fronts. The inkwell has been dry, and honestly, when arid sets in you begin to wonder why you do it at all. Except I know, deep down, that being wordless is not a state of health. Not for me.

“All those things for which we have no words are lost.” I’m not sure the sublime Annie Dillard had in mind my dearth of blogging when she penned this sentence, but it strikes a gentle blow no less. Words make flesh. Words remember. Words name and hold things secure. It’s a reminder, too, that when all is said and done, I write for me. Indulgent it might sound, but writing is how I find myself.

So, hear I am again. Blogging for year #12. In search of a word or two … or three.

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Lent: a time to follow

I’m not ready, Lord.
I don’t want to go.
The Advent candles are barely snuffed out;
the straw bales from the stable
are still in the dumpster out back.
And now this?
It’s just February, for God’s sake!
I’m not ready.

Let it go, let it go

I’m tired, Lord.
The year’s got off to a rough start.
I know I should be fresh, alert,
full of new-year resolve and ready for anything:
‘Yes, Lord!’
But I’m not.
This is hard work.
Just showing up is a tough gig.
I don’t want to go.

Let it out, let it out
let it all unravel

You want forty days of ‘on’ and ‘upward’?
You want six Sundays of resolution and surrender?
You want my life? my undivided attention?
‘Simon, are you asleep?
Could you not keep awake one hour?’
Frankly, Jesus, no.
I don’t have it.
I don’t feel it.
I can’t do it.

Let it free, let it free
let it all unravel

I know the way, Lord.
I know where this road leads.
I’ve been around the block before.
That’s the issue, isn’t it?
I know what you expect
and I know what it costs.
God knows, I tell others often enough.
If I front up with ‘all of me’
I know what it takes:
it’s all ‘giving up’ and ‘letting go’;
it’s all vulnerability, exposure,
opposition and conflict.
And everything so deeply felt.
Honestly, Lord, my heart aches enough already.
And, besides, this ‘all of me’
feels like a hollow gift to give.

Let it go
Let it out
Let it all unravel
Let it free
And it will be
A path on which to travel*

I’m not ready, Lord,
… but I’m here.

 

*With thanks to Michael Leunig for his constant inspiration

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The Making of a Minister

This piece, written by the Lutheran Walter Wangerin, was first published in the American journal Christianity Today back in 1982. As a young man preparing for the possibility of ordination, I was moved by Wangerin’s words but with scant appreciation for their real meaning. Regardless, I copied the words into my journal. Some thirty years later they still resonate, but now with a far greater depth.

Though longer than a usual blog post, for those engaged in the practice of pastoral ministry this is a story worth revisiting.

 The Making of a Minister

Arthur lived in a shotgun house, so-called because it was three rooms in a dead straight line, built narrowly on half a city lot. More properly, Arthur lived in the front room of his house. Or rather, to speak the cold, disturbing truth, Arthur lived in a rotting stuffed chair in that room, from which he seldom stirred the last year of his life.

No one mourned his absence from church. I think most people were grateful that he turned reclusive, for the man had a walk and a manner like the toad, a high-backed slouch, and a burping contempt for his fellow parishioners. Arthur’s mind, though mostly uneducated, was excellent. He had written poetry in his day, both serious and sly, but now he used words to shiv Christians in their pews. Neither time nor circumstance protected the people, but their dress and their holiness caught on the hooks of his observations, and pain could spread across their countenance even in the middle of an Easter melody, while Arthur sat lumpish beside them, triumphant. No: none felt moved to visit the man when he became housebound.

Except me.

I was the minister, so sweetly young and dutiful. It was my job. And Arthur had phoned to remind me of that.

But to visit Arthur was grimly sacrificial.

After several months of chair sitting, both Arthur and his room were filthy. I do not exaggerate: roaches flowed from my step like puddles stomped in; they dropped casually from the walls. I stood very still. The TV flickered constantly. There were newspapers strewn all over the floor. There lay a damp film on every solid object in the room, from which arose a close, mouldy odour as though it were alive and sweating. But the dampness was a blessing because Arthur smoked.

He had a bottom lip like a shelf. Upon that shelf he placed lit cigarettes, and then he did not remove them until they had burned quite down, at which moment he blew them toward the television set. Burning, they hit the newspapers on the floor. But it’s impossible to ignite a fine, moist mildew. Blessedly, they went out.

Then the old man would increase the sacrifice of my visit. Motioning toward a foul and oily sofa, winking as though he knew what mortal damage it could do to my linens and dignity, he said in hostly tones: “Have a seat, why don’t you, Reverend?”

From the beginning, I did not like to visit Arthur Forte. Nor did he make my job (My ministry, you cry. My service! My discipleship! No – just my job) any easier. He did not wish a quick psalm, a professional prayer, devotions. Rather, he wanted to sharply dispute a young clergyman’s faith; he tested my mettle, my character. Seventy years a churchgoer, the old man narrowed his eye at me and debated the goodness of God. With incontrovertible proofs, he delivered shattering damnations of hospitals (at which he had worked), and doctors (for whom he had worked over the years): “Twenty dollars a strolling visit when they come to patient’s room,” he said, “for what? Two minutes’ time is what, and no particular news to the patient. A squeeze, a punch, a scribble on their charts, and they leave the sucker feeling low and worthless.” Wuhthless, he said, hollowing the word at its center. “God-in-a-smock had listened to their heart, and didn’t even tell them what he heard! Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never go to a hospital.” “That cock-a-roach is more truthful of what he’s about. Ho, ho!” said Arthur, “I’ll never lie in a hospital bed, ho, ho.” And then, somehow, the failure of doctors he wove into his intense argument against the goodness of the Deity, and he slammed me with facts, and I was a fumbling, lubberly sort to be defending the Almighty.

When I left him, I was empty in my soul and close to tears, and testy, my own faith in God seeming most stale, flat, unprofitable at the moment. I didn’t like to visit Arthur.

Then came the days when he asked for prayer, scripture, and the Lord’s Supper, all three. The man, by late summer, was failing. He did not remove himself from the chair to let me in (I entered an unlocked door), now even to pass urine (which entered a chair impossibly foul). The August heat was unbearable. I had argued that Arthur go to the hospital. He had a better idea. He took of his clothes. Naked, Arthur greeted me. Naked, finally, the old man asked my prayers. Naked, he opened his mouth to receive communion. Naked. He’d raised the level of sacrifice to anguish. I was mortified. And still he was not finished with me.

For in those latter days, the naked Arthur Forte asked me, his minister, to come forward and put his slippers on, his undershorts, and his pants. And I did. His feet had begun to swell, so it caused both him and me unutterable pain in those private moments when I took his hard heal in my hands and worked a splitbacked slipper round it; when he stood groaning aloud, taking the clothing one leg at a time; when I bent groaning so deeply in my soul. I dressed him. He leaned on me, I touched his nakedness to dress him, we hurt, and his was sacrifice beyond my telling it. But in those moments I came to know a certain wordless affection for Arthur Forte.

(Now read me your words, “ministry,” and “service,” and “discipleship,” for then I began to understand them, then, at touching Arthur’s feet, when that and nothing else was what Arthur yearned for, one human being to touch him, physically to touch his old flesh, and not to judge. In the most dramatic terms available, the old man had said, “Love me.”)

The last week of August, on a weekly visit, I found Arthur prone on the floor. He’d fallen out of his chair during the night, but his legs were too swollen and his arms too weak for climbing in again. I said, “This is it, Arthur. You’re going to the hospital.” He was tired. He didn’t argue any more, but let me call two other members of the congregation. While they came, I dressed him – and he groaned profoundly. He groaned when we carried him to the car. He groaned even during the transfer from the car to wheelchair: we’d brought him to emergency. But there his groaning took on new meaning.

“I’m thirsty,” he said.

“He’s thirsty,” I said to the nurse, “Would you get him a drink of water?”

“No,” she said. “What?” “No. He can ingest nothing until his doctor is contacted. No.”

“But, water — ?”

“Nothing.”

“Would you contact his doctor, then?”

“That will be done by the unit nurse when he’s in his room.”

Arthur slumped in his chair and hurting, said, “I’m thirsty.”

I said, “Well, then, can I wheel him to his room?”

“I’m sorry, no,” she said.

“Please,” I said. “I’m his minister. I’ll take responsibility for him.”

“In this place he is our responsibility, not yours,” she said. “Be patient. An aide will get him up in good time.”

Oh Arthur, forgive me for not getting you a drink of water at home. Forgive us 20 minutes wait without a drink. Forgive us our rules, our rules, our irresponsibility.

Even in his room they took the time to wash him long before they brought him a drink.

“Why?” I pleaded.

“We are about to change shifts. The next nurse will call his doctor. All in good time.”

So Arthur, whose smell had triggered much discussion in the halls, finally did not stink. But Arthur still was thirsty. He said two things before I left.

He mumbled, “Bloody but unbowed.” Poetry!

“Good Arthur!” I praised him with all my might. Even malicious wit was better than lethargy; perhaps I could get him to cut, slice up a nurse or two. But he rolled an eye toward me for the first time since entering the place.

“Bloody,” he said, “and bowed.”

He slept an hour. Then, suddenly, he startled awake and stared about himself. “Where am I? Where am I?” he called. I answered, and he groaned painfully, “Why am I?” I have wept uncontrollably at the death of only one parishioner.

Since the hospital knew no relative for Arthur Forte, at 11 o’clock that same night they called me. Then I laid the telephone aside, and cried as though it was my own father. Anguish, failure, the want of a simple glass of water; I sat in the kitchen and cried.

But that failure has since nurtured a certain calm success. I do not suppose that Arthur consciously gave me the last year of his life, nor that he chose to teach me. Yet, by his mere being; by forcing me to take that life, real, unsweetened, bare-naked, hurting, and critical; by demanding that I serve him altogether unrewarded; by wringing from me first mere gestures of loving, and then love itself – but sacrificial love for one so indisputably unlovable – he did prepare me for my work and for life itself.

My tears were my diploma, his death my benediction, and my failure my ordination. For the Lord did not say, “Blessed are you if you know” or “teach” or “preach these things.” He said, rather, “Blessed are you if you do them.”

When, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, he sat and said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things,” said Jesus, “blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:14-17). Again and again the Lord expanded on this theme: “Drink to the stinking is drink to me!”

One might have learned by reading it . . . but it is a theme made real in experience alone, by doing it. At first flush this experience is, generally, a sense of failure, for this sort of work severely diminishes the worker, makes them insignificant, makes them the merest servant, the very least in the transaction! To feel so small is to feel somehow failing, unable.

But there, right there, begins true servanthood, the disciple who has, despite himself, denied himself. And then, for perhaps the first time, one is loving not out of his own bowels, merit, ability, superiority, but out of Christ: for he has discovered himself to be nothing and Christ everything. In the terrible, terrible doing of this work is the minister born. And curiously, the best teachers of the nascent, immature minister are sometimes the neediest people, foul to touch, unworthy, ungiving, unlovely, yet haughty in demanding [and sometimes then miraculously receiving] love.

Arthur, my father, my father! So seeming empty your death, it was not empty at all. There is no monument above your pauper’s grave – but here: it is here in me and in my ministry. However could I make little of this godly wonder, that I love you?

 

2006_wangerinWalter Wangerin, Jr., “The Making of a Minister” in Christianity Today, September 17, 1982.

 

 

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The Fullness Thereof

The earth is Yours, Lord
and the fullness thereof — the FULLness!

The earth is Yours
full of height
(help us to rise and soar
to look back on this small blue spaceship
and out into space —
past our system, our galaxy, to the atom).

The earth is Yours
full of depth
(help us to go down — to see within one dandelion
its tiny parachutes
wee green blades, hardy roots, the very universe
and its indomitable Christ).

The earth is Yours
full of beauty
(the greatest art in the universe is there in a fly’s eye
a butterfly’s shingled wings
an old woman’s wrinkled face
an – other human being.

The earth is Yours
full of ecstasy
(exaltation and depth
joy and sorrow
real hearts greatly broken
true loves really lost
and death’s worst efforts
faced
gone through
undergone
overcome).

Forgive us
when we desecrate Your infinite
startling
awe-full
awesome
mysterious creation.
Forgive us
the real atheism
of living on the surface
skimming along
overlooking
or just getting by.
Judge us whenever we say “It’s ONLY an animal”
or “Oh, I know him”
or “Is that all there is?”
or “BORing …”

Good God, what a world!
Passion birthed it
Your love sustains it all
from speck
to sun
to soul.
And only when we feel and see and sense the fullness thereof
just as we appreciate Your gift with interest
do we
can we
shall we know the earth
and the earth’s Lord
and ours

amen.

5142O-VL-zL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 87-88.

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Faith & God

Faith is a fickle thing. There are moments in our dealings with God that the conversation is fertile and believing instinctive; and others when the seed of faith shrivels in the hand. There are moments when intimate language flows and seasons when it feels like heaven’s doors are bolted — ‘the Great Wizard’ is out.

Experience tells me that such fickleness is standard. It’s par for the course in believing. Yet reading through the psalms this past month, I come away with this sense: while faith may be capricious, God is not.

I cannot claim to understand this God. But in both the acclamations and accusations of the psalmists, there is something consistent about God’s being that holds when life, and even faith, fails.

In preparing prayers yesterday for another occasion, I came across these familiar words from Frederick Ohler. Aspirational perhaps. Regardless, there is something about them that resonates today.

AWE – FUL

Great and holy God
awe and reverence
fear and trembling
do not come easily to us
for we are not
Old Testament Jews
or Moses
or mystics
or sensitive enough.

Forgive us
for slouching in Your presence
with little expectation
and less awe
than we would eagerly give a visiting dignitary.

We need
neither Jehovah nor a buddy—
neither “the Great and Powerful Oz”
nor “the man upstairs.”
Help us
to want what we need …
You God
and may the altar of our hearts tremble with delight at
Your visitation

amen.

Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

certainty

I’m certain … sort of

I like certainty. When it comes to life’s detail, I don’t care for the open-ended. I prefer decisions made and plans settled. What’s more, I’m a sucker for those who speak with clarity and conviction. Why, then, do I react so strongly to a particular certainty in belief? Why do I resist those who claim a singular authority in religious faith or political ideology?

Late last year I sat with a small group of Christian leaders. Our task was to share the ‘values’ that undergird our ministry and the nature of our ‘authority’ in leadership. When my turn came, I said something about my values including room for conversation, difference and doubt. As for my authority, I thought it came from my ability to listen for the questions that life presents and to discern the truth amidst them. As I spoke, the man next to me shifted in his seat. Clearly he was agitated. Before I could finish, he blurted, “What a load of tosh!” The group flinched. Tosh? It was so long since I’d heard the word, I was more baffled by it than I was by the force of his voice. “What your people need from you, brother, is a man who knows what he believes.” He leaned forward. “All this talk about doubt and difference and discerning truth …. we have the truth. For God’s sake, preach it!”

All tosh aside, he had a point. The truth of God in Christ is not up for grabs, not for me anyway. There is a certainty in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” that sits beneath me in ministry. But this certainty is never one that precludes the possibility of questions left hanging or of truth discerned in unexpected places.

There is a brand of certainty alive today that renders everything black or white. It’s a certainty that repels doubt and, most tragically, refuses to listen. It’s as though all questions have simple answers and, once answered, cease to be questions. In my experience, though, there are questions of faith that never get answered, not completely. Besides, I’ve always thought questions worth having are worth keeping.

An unflinching certainty can be harsh, even ugly. At its worst it’s demonising, excluding, superior and humourless. I remember when living in the States reading the words of a retiring Baptist journalist who said this: “One of the most frightening things about the so-called new right and, for that matter, the new left is … the absolute humorlessness of their crusade. There is something scary about the crusader who is never for a moment aware of his shortcomings, the partiality of his insights, the finitudes of his being, the actual narrowness of his angle of vision.”

I feel the same. When there’s no place for the possibility of error, negotiation or compromise, what’s left is scary: I know and you don’t; I’m right and you’re wrong.

I must be what Patrick Henry labels an ironic Christian; one who has an “abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.” I do have this instinctive sense, and a lifetime’s experience to back it up, that life is always more complex than straightforward, more nuanced than obvious, more fraught than simple. What’s more, there is something compelling about the virtues of gentleness and humility that speak with a certainty all their own.

“To be both ironic and Christian,” Henry says, “is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it’s so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.”

 

51OJ6Ye4YkL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World, Riverhead Books, 1999.

 

 

 

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.

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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.