I have been reflecting on our practice of acknowledging the original custodians of the land on which we worship – their elders past, present and emerging.
Standing tall at the Woodhouse Grove property is a large silver leaf stringy bark tree. It was a small seedling in the year 1820. In that year, an old woman, an Elder of the Wurundjeri peoples rests beside a campfire, its lazy smoke rises gently, then lost in a large tree canopy standing on fertile soil. The sound of children can be heard playing beside a small stream.
The old woman, glancing around, spots a small emerging seedling. She picks up her digging stick and begins to gently clear away small sticks and grass from around the seedling. A child joins her and together they tend to its needs. Perhaps this gentle act with a child best describes an ‘Elder’.
In the Uniting Church the word ‘Elder’ describes a person who agrees: ‘to share with the minister in oversight and building up the congregation in faith and love sustaining its members in hope and leading them into a full participation in Christ’s mission in the world’. (Section 19a UCA Constitution 2018)
The image of an old woman and a child tending a small seedling is from another time. It is, however, a community sharing its love and hope across generations. The result of this community mission is present today in the form of an old stringy bark tree. This once seedling, now a protected tree. It is a living legacy from past Elders to our Elders, providing shelter and warmth for the many congregations who have passed by on their journey from the past to the present, emerging as a bridge to a shared future.
Recently, Chris and her grandchildren visited Margaret, surrounded by a garden lovingly tended to by Hugh. A child made Anzac biscuits to leave at the front doors of our elderly. These acts of love reflect hope as did that of an old aboriginal woman and a child 200 years earlier. All these acts involve children, and all celebrate Elders past, present and emerging.
When I chose to become an Elder, I asked myself “what are my gifts and skills?” This question took me back to a small country town, to an emerging realisation ritual and worship had more to offer than hymns and bible readings. So began my journey of faith, to explore, to learn about and hone my gifts and skills. At times subconsciously, in ways I did not fully understand. Yet that decision continues to shape my life to this day, often in unexpected ways. To then choose to become an Elder is one of these unexpected ways.
The inability of the Pastoral Care Portfolio to meet, the impact of lockdown, has allowed me to look through a different lens, to visualise my work as an Elder in a new light. With no face to face contact, I now ring friends, Zoom in with others, use text messaging to some. I have time to reflect on the past, write stories, share life-shaping experiences, learn new skills, and to touch gently opportunities for change.
The UCA Regulations provide a framework for Elders, handed down from the past. They were designed to provide clarity, to bring order, to provide care and respect to all peoples in a faith community. They are anchor points for God’s gifted people to link into, to explore, to exercise their faith, in living out their everyday life. An emerging, always growing life, as a springboard into the wider emerging community.
And what of that word ‘emerging’. I have enjoyed the participation of young people in the virtual services, the invitation to discuss their needs within the emerging community centre at Templestowe. I have watched with joy the involvement of children distributing the Eucharist. For they are our emerging Elders. They are providing pastoral care, hospitality, and are a walking, living hope for the future.
Perhaps, it is the word ‘Elder’ that overlooks, and at times disregards others. Perhaps it is not about a ‘right’ word. But it is simply a word that identifies tasks handed down by our past peoples to be present in our faith community where all peoples are welcomed, and all have a role to perform.
We all desire to live out our responses to God’s call, each different in its response. Each different because we have different gifts and skills. However, it is together we create a faith community.
It includes all of us – from the smallest baby to the oldest person, those who worship on a weekly basis or occasionally, those who surround us, those who we are yet to know. None are more important than another. All are deserving of respect. All have been called by God. All need to be listened to.
The simple image of an old woman and a child tending to a seedling from a stringy bark tree captures the concept of a congregation sustaining its members. It fits the image of today’s church. An image to protect, to care for, to nourish, to teach, to share with, to restore, and to reach out beyond those present and those emerging from the traditions of the past, to become the future.