Blog to the bush
I had the opportunity earlier this year to spend a weekend in a tiny NSW country town in the far north west of the state.
According to the locals, the town was smaller, drier and poorer than it has ever been in their memory. A drive around town made me think this assessment was optimistic.
Buildings were boarded up. Businesses had closed down. New housing starts had slowed to a standstill, years earlier, I guessed.
It was Saturday afternoon. The town’s two pubs were doing a steady trade in grog and gambling. Although hot, the council pool had but a couple of boisterous teenage boys dive-bombing each other in the deep end. The life-guard was blinking back the boredom. I did little to brighten up her day as I swam a few laps at a lethargic pace.
Then, driving around the wide and empty streets as the late afternoon sun still scorched the sunburnt earth, I saw a sign to the local golf club. It was a couple of minutes out of town. I eased into the shade on the eastern side of the clubhouse to seek some shelter, snooze-time and a glance at the Saturday Herald. The building had seen better days. It was deserted, dilapidated, derelict, with white paint peeling off its badly weathered boards. Golf courses and clubhouses throughout the suburbs of our cities would be heaving with high paying members and guests at this time of a Saturday afternoon.
Next to this all but abandoned clubhouse a sad and shabby sign announced that green fees were $5. But there wasn’t a blade of green to be seen on the greens, tees and fairways.
As I settled into a semi-comatose state, staring blankly through the windscreen and down a long broad scrub-lined fairway, something in the dusty distance caught my eye. Emerging from the shimmer, a shade of eerie beige, and coming straight up the blade-less, brown fairway, like a perfectly driven golf ball, was a late model four wheel drive. Halfway up the fairway the 4x4 stopped and out stepped a man with a golf club in hand. He was tall, dark and handsome. He had the style of Tiger Woods, the stature of VJ Sing and even the swagger of Michael Jordan.
He addressed what was obviously a golf ball but unseen by me among the stones and dirt. Crack, zing and the ball wizzed towards the lighter shade of brown sand (green) as the fairway took a dog-leg left and well to the right of my parked car.
It was all accomplished with such an air of confidence and grace that I thought that this guy would be quite at home at the Augusta Masters; on the final day, in the final group on the final hole. He returned to his 4x4 golf cart, drove right up the middle of the fairway toward his ball for a pitch, and probably a par. Who is that guy? I wondered.
It was a surreal scene and one that will always stay with me.
I didn’t have to wait too long to find out.
The next morning I was the guest preacher at the local Anglican church - the only congregation in town still holding weekly services. There in the back row was a family of six, all tall, dark and handsome like the one who I watched with such wonder the day before.
They were a refugees from an African nation and he was the doctor at the small bush hospital that serviced the town and a very large surrounding district.
It was a terrific morning. The preaching was ordinary but the people were outstanding. Happy, hospitable, hungry for the Bible. Unpretentious. Hardly a grumble or a hark back to the good old days. They were full of the Lord’s joy and determined to keep witness to Jesus alive, ticking and kicking, although age, drought and city migration were dwindling their town.
The question for me is not how to re-populate the bush. The relentless shift to regional cities and the big smoke is here to stay. Regionalisation won’t revitalize the rural. Even my golf-loving African doctor will one day swap his 4x4 for an electric-powered golf cart with an engine the size of a sewing machine. Green will replace brown. Silky greens will replace sand and dirt. Suburban hospital will replace bush clinic. Regional or capital city will replace small country town. And all for the reasonable reasons that have drawn and kept me (and probably you) there. Family, education, facilities, resources, convenience.
But we live in large cities but experience little community. We will live in bigger houses but experience greater loneliness. We want greater convenience but commute longer distances. And we want better golf courses but complain about rising green fees.
The cities of dreams become sinkholes of despair.
The question is how to bring the heart of the bush to the soul-lessness of the suburbs of the city? How do we bring the slowness of the bush to the speed of the city? How do we bring the time of the bush to the tension of the city? How do we bring the community of the bush to the callousness of the city? How do we bring the hospitality of the bush to the harshness of the city?
And, most importantly, how do we bring the heart of the hospitable God to the hurts of a self-serving humanity?