I was 26 when I left my work as a country parson to take up the prestigious position as the Minister of Cheltenham Church of Christ Victoria. This Church had the reputation of being a very large and alive Church. But that was a mirage. The reality was quite different as this young country parson was soon to discover. The life of a suburban Minister has some real surprises.
One of our greatest joys when I was a suburban minister was living in a manse next door to the church that had a lot of land attached to it at the back. The church on Chesterville Road was on a very deep block of land and running the entire length of the block were several halls, kindergarten, huge gymnasium, car parks and the rest, and alongside the whole depth of the church block was vacant land which formed part of the back yard to the manse. We fenced off the nearer part to have an enclosed backyard because our children were very young, but over the years as two more children joined our little daughter and baby son whom we brought with us to Cheltenham, the four kids found the backyard a wonderful place to play. I built them a high cubby house, sixteen feet in the air, with a slide, a slippery pole, a ladder for climbing up and, underneath, the sandpit.
When the boys were young I slept out in the cubby house with them and we had fabulous nights of lads and dads sleeping out in rough conditions, with the boys sleeping on mattresses while I slept in a hammock above their heads. Our daughter loved to climb and the swinging rope which hung from the top of the cubby house was a great thing to play upon.
But at the back of the yard we had a chooks house with plenty of chooks. Our kids loved animals and so over our time we used the entire length of the backyard for our various animals. There was Laddie the black and white kelpie dog who could climb vertical fences and, in spite of the fact that I extended the fence by three feet and put barbed wire on the top, Laddie could climb straight up a six foot fence, another three foot of continuation, scrape himself through the barbed wire leaving tufts of black and white hair along it, and drop down on the outside and freedom to chase the cars up and down the highway.
We had a black and white cat called Tuppence who went everywhere with us. We had budgies, fish, white mice, canaries and along with the chooks we had some ducks. We had collected some fertile eggs from a farm we stayed at frequently at Ararat and we had hatched the ducks from the eggs by the simple method of leaving the cardboard box in which the eggs were situated sitting over one of the underfloor air vents from the oil heater. In Melbourne’s winter the oil heater ran night and day and the constant warm air hatched out the eggs. They were long gangly ducks but our kids took to them instantly.
They soon had the run of the chooks yard at the back. We built a large duck pond where they could swim and from that moment every child spent some time getting covered in wet mud and yukky chook pooh. The ducks became part of our life except for one dreadful night when palings were prised from the fence and half a dozen of our ducks were stolen for somebody’s table. Our children were distraught but to be quite frank their parents were fairly relieved that the ducks were no longer our responsibility. However, the fate of the ducks never pleased any of us.
The white mice were quite a hit. The trouble was I started with two. I doubt if I would have had the problem if there had only been one. But I bought two, built a lovely glass-fronted mouse house with several floors with little ladders leading from floor to floor, good water and food containers at the bottom, together with some exercise rings and a little running track which raced round and round, and then right at the top a series of bedrooms each with it’s own circular doorway through which the mice could scurry. The trouble was, my mice were not interested in the gymnasium, the ladders or the exercise equipment. They were only interested in the food and the bedrooms. Before long we had our first litter of white mice and then before long there were eight. Then there were sixteen. Then there were thirty. I suddenly had a mouse population explosion on my hands. When the numbers reached sixty four I decided that the colony had to be thinned.
At that time I was running a program to encourage Sunday School children to bring their friends to Sunday School and without telling their parents arranged a very fine present – every child who brought a friend to Sunday School received a free pet white mouse in a paper bag. As many of those children from the Sunday School met and sat with their parents in church not long afterwards you can imagine how delighted the parents were to discover that their offspring had in church a paper bag complete with white mouse. It was not one of my better ideas.
However, the animal that we had in our backyard that caused the greatest amount of fun with all the other kids in the Sunday School as well as with my own children was Lorrie the Lamb. Lorrie was a little orphan which we picked up in a desperate state on Judd’s farm at Ararat. It had been autumn lambing time and we had been driving around with Jeff in his old Holden ute with the kids all sitting in the back, checking the ewes and their newborn lambs. Jeff drove over a part of the paddock from which the sheep had moved. There, lying on the ground, shivering with cold and without a mother, was a baby lamb – perhaps a weaker twin which had been left behind by the ewe. Jeff reached out of the ute, through the driver’s door without getting out of his seat, scooped up the weak little thing and plopped him on the lap of my daughter who was sitting between us on the front seat of the utility. She snuggled him and hugged him and gradually gave him some warmth. “He’s an orphan. How would you like to bring him up?” said Jeff with a grin from ear to ear. “Of course you would.”
We went back to the house and very soon his wife Marj had warmed some milk in a bottle with a teat and so we began the task of rearing the day-old orphaned lamb. You’ve got no idea how often you have to give them a feed. Night and day that lamb kept us awake for weeks with his noise and of course in the middle of the night it was mum or dad who had to get up and give him a bottle. But nevertheless the hand-reared orphan lamb became part and parcel of our family. He followed our kids around as if they were his parents, and soon children and lamb were inseparable.
Lorrie the Lamb came to Sunday School. He went to girls’ gymnasium and went off with everybody on the lads and dads camp. Every child in the Sunday School knew and petted and fed Lorrie. Gradually he began to grow and when he became a robust teenager of a sheep he was strong enough and big enough for our young children to ride on his back. Lorrie didn’t seem to mind and with one or two children on his back would charge off better than a bucking bronco. Lorrie was in fact a ram, and very soon had grown to full height. He had a raucous baa..aa..aa..aa. And every time a church service got under way, when the congregation started to sing, Lorrie would move up the side of the church and outside the windows would join in with his un-melodious contribution. It was quite a standing joke among the congregation, although there were times when I must admit that his baa-ing was most inappropriate and I was quite sure that the matter would come up on the agenda at the next deacons’ meeting. However, the entire year went by without Lorrie being removed and he had become an inseparable part of the furniture of the manse and a plaything for all of our children.
The Christmas after Lorrie arrived I suddenly had the idea of incorporating him into a manger scene. Big Stan willingly brought in a load of hay bales from his property and together we set up a high manger scene in the form of a hay bale cave and inside it a manger and a baby carefully floodlit. Then round about it we erected some fencing similar to swimming pool fencing and inside placed half a dozen chooks, a couple of white doves which flew just around the top of the bales, our cat Tuppence took up residence inside, and the star attraction was Lorrie the Lamb. Lorrie just ate the green grass from the lawn, and nibbled away at the hay bales. We floodlit the manger scene and from the time we turned on the light cars began to pull up in an endless stream with little children getting out to walk up to the manger scene, stare at the Baby Jesus lying in the hay, at the doves cooing on the top of the bale at the roof of the cave, at the chooks as they scratched around in the grass, and at Lorrie as he quietly nibbled and looked through the fencing with appealing eyes for anything the children wanted to give him to eat.
On Christmas Eve literally hundreds of parents and children got out of cars to come and look at the manger scene with it’s livestock and then go on their way.
That Christmas Eve we went to bed having wrapped up all the presents, played the part of Santa, and with everything ready for the very big Christmas Day when the Methodist Church would be coming as our guests to a huge combined service.
At some time during the early hours of the morning I was awakened by a screech of tyres outside the manse bedroom window. I listened for a moment and then got up and peered through blinds. A utility being driven very fast just went round the corner. I went back to bed. Hardly a minute had gone by when there was someone knocking urgently at the door. A young couple was outside. “Two men, in a ute, they just went round the corner very fast. They’ve stolen your sheep from the manger.” In my pyjamas I rushed out the door and over to the manger and sure enough Lorrie was gone! I ran down to the corner of the highway and looked around but the utility wasn’t to be seen.
That Christmas morning was full of joy as children opened their presents but the joy turned to absolute despair when they went outside and discovered Lorrie was missing. There was nothing I could say that would comfort them. They were absolutely heartbroken that Lorrie had been stolen from our manger scene. And when the people came to church not one, but perhaps five hundred people asked me “Where’s Lorrie? What’s happened to your lamb?” And when the message got down to some of the children in the area there were children with tears in their eyes and others with newly presented bicycles riding off in all directions to search the streets for Lorrie the Lamb. It was a sad Christmas Day for us all. You would be amazed at how that lamb had entwined himself around our hearts. It was as much a part of our family as any one of us. And the thought of Lorrie being stolen, and of his ultimate end, just really gripped our hearts.
When I was free from church services I went on a fruitless search around the entire neighbourhood in my car, hoping for some sight of him.
Two days after Christmas there was a very tearful Mary Hughes at the door. “Come quickly. Down at Highett. Just past our place. There’s a paddock and there’s sheep skin in the paddock. I think it’s Lorrie.” We jumped into the car and went down to that part of Hyatt and sure enough we could recognise his fleece of wool anywhere. It was the skin of Lorrie whose throat had been cut and head cut off and his skin had just been dumped in the paddock. I didn’t let our kids see it. It would be too much trauma. I rang the police and they came round. A couple of days after Christmas is pretty quiet in the field of journalism and some journalist at police headquarters picked up the news that a pet lamb had been stolen on Christmas eve from the manger outside the church, and recognised that there was a story in it. So it was on the front page of a Melbourne major daily declared “Lamb murdered”. Another one said simply “Manger robbed – lamb massacred”. And another one said “Christmas lamb slain”. There was an amazing outcry in the press over the next days as people wrote contrasting the meaning of Christmas, of love and goodwill to men, with those despicable people who thieved and stole and murdered.
It was some time later when the real significance of all of this hit me. Jesus was born in a manger in the fields where shepherds watched their flock by night. The fields were called Midgal Edar “the tower of a flock”, for Bethlehem was the place where sheep without spot or blemish were born and cared for by shepherds guarding them. These were the special sheep who were born in the killing fields of Bethlehem. Their destiny was to become the sacrifice at the Temple some eight miles away. And Baby Jesus was laid in a manger in the killing fields – the Lamb of God, without spot or blemish – the Lamb of God who from the foundation of the world was to take away the sin of the world. He too was the Lamb of God killed by selfish and evil men.
Suddenly the meaning of Christmas came home to me with stark reality. If we should weep the loss of an orphan lamb from our manger scene, how much more should we weep that the Son of God who came to save the world was slain at the hands of evil men.
That night in my study I spent some time writing up my journal and looking out of the window at the never ending stream of cars stopping at the traffic lights at the corner of Nepean Highway and Chesterville Road, that wide intersection that was dominated by the lovely white Church with the high white tower noting down the events of another day as a suburban minister.