I sat beside a hospital bed and held an old man’s hand today. His skin was thin and papery and he struggled to open his eyes. Even when he did blink them to life, he didn’t initially recognize me.
It had been a long time.
I first met him in the late 1980s when I had just been appointed the student minister at Seaforth Baptist Church in Sydney’s north. It was a small congregation, many of them aging, which is why they could only afford a part-time student minister.
I wasn’t exactly what some of them wanted in a minister. I didn’t wear a suit or preach with a booming, authoritarian tone. I was chastised by one older member because she thought the way I conducted the Sunday services was “too cavalier.”
The treasurer – a nervous man who squinted a lot while pushing his glasses up his nose – suggested I should stop spending all the church’s hard-earned money. Although, for the life of me, I have no idea what I was apparently frittering it all away on.
I didn’t win any friends when I closed their dwindling Wednesday night prayer meeting (at which I was expected to bring a sermon) and tried to start home study groups. One fellow said I would “go down in history” as the man who killed the church’s prayer meeting.
It wasn’t a miserable appointment, by any means. There was a small group of younger couples who encouraged me enormously. But even the most modest changes were met with nervousness and uncertainty on the part of the older members.
One of those old guard was a man named Harry de Rusett. Even though he was only in his 50s back then, he seemed older to me. Maybe it was because his family had founded the church and he wore the weight of that history around him. Maybe it was because all 50-somethings seem old to 20-somethings.
Harry’s sister had been a celebrated missionary in the Congo and Harry had been actively involved in lay ministry since his teens. They were local church royalty.
In those days I played soccer with a local football club and occasionally we had matches scheduled on a Sunday to make up for any games that had been washed out during the season.
One Sunday morning I announced from the pulpit that I would need to leave immediately after the service because we had a game on that afternoon. It was an important match. We needed to win it to make the finals. I mentioned this to the congregation and flippantly (some might say “cavalierly”) asked them to pray for a victory. And then I ducked out and drove to the game.
Unbeknown to me, a few of the more traditional members convened a meeting to discuss the situation of having a minister who dared to play football on the Sabbath. It was the final straw for a few of them, apparently.
Later, I caught wind about their discontent and wasn’t surprised when Harry de Rusett approached me for a conversation. I figured he was their designated representative and I was about to get reprimanded. Again.
Harry took me by the elbow and this is what he told me:
“When I was a teenager my parents and the other members of the church used to conduct open-air evangelistic rallies on Clontarf Beach in summer. Us boys had to wear suits and ties and stand on this portable set of bleachers singing hymns. We stood in formation while testimonies were shared and fire-and-brimstone sermons were preached. I used to look out over the evangelist’s shoulder and see my mates from school in their swimming trunks, looking at me with a mixture of derision and sympathy. I couldn’t invite any of them to church because they all thought I was part of some weird cult. My personal witness to them was dead.”
I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I nodded politely.
“You’re the first minister we’ve had in a long time who can relate to ordinary people. You play soccer with non-Christian blokes and some of them have come to church here a few times. I’ve been asked to tell you that you shouldn’t be playing on Sundays, but actually I love it. Don’t let the oldies drag you back to those days. In fact, if you quit that team I might even leave this church. You’ve got my full support, brother!”
And with that he slapped me firmly on the shoulder. It felt like a kind of ordination, like an imprimatur from a church founder. I took it as a something of a commission. A commission to be myself – unconventional, a little irreverent, somewhat iconoclastic – but true to me.
I remember reading about a nurse who recounted the top five regrets of her dying patients, drawn from decades of work in hospitals. The number one regret was this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Churches demand conformity. The air in some churches is thick with it. I think Harry de Rusett helped give me the courage to resist it, to breathe more freely, to be myself, to find my own approach, to be true to how God was shaping me as a leader. And he ran defense for me too, speaking up for me to the older members when I ticked them off.
Soon after that, God saw fit to shower Seaforth Baptist Church with growth and we entered a new era of vitality.
Today, all those older members of Seaforth Baptist Church are gone. Only Harry remains, God love him. But his weak, weathered hand is the same one that he lay on my shoulder some thirty years ago. It surprised me how moved I was as I held that hand and prayed for him in his hour of need.
Oh, and I assured him I’d continued to keep ticking church people off since he saw me last.