Fred is a man with a mission. A third generation farmer, his family roots lie deep in the fertile soil of the Richmond River Valley in Northern New South Wales. Having handed the farm over to his son, Fred now has time to pursue his passion: the restoration of the little village church.
Built in 1902 by local pioneering families, the weatherboard church sits just above flood level by the great river that once bore steam ships to Lismore. Unpretentious on the outside, its interior featured some of the beautiful rainforest timbers, cedar and rosewood, but a later generation smothered it all with several coats of paint. Fred's mission is to remove the paint and restore the original beauty. And during the past few years he has given untold hours repairing damage and painstakingly scraping away the artificial to reveal the real underneath. It was in this little church that I met him a few weeks ago.
Fred uses no harsh paint removers but rather a cabinet scraper, which produces the finest shavings. As he explained his work to us, he several times paused to remind us of the goodness of God. Providentially, he believes, hard-to-find materials turned up in unexpected places and at critical times so his work could continue.
Gently Fred shepherded us to the corner where stood the church's old pedal organ. Turning to my sister-in-law, Hazel, he asked, “Would you play a hymn for me?” As she played Fred began to sing in his clear tenor voice. For a few minutes the vaulted space echoed to the praises sung by our impromptu quartet as we stood by that wheezy old instrument. Music had always been important to the congregation, Fred told us.
Finally Fred said, “Let's go outside and you can ring the bell.” Even finding a replacement bell—the original disappeared years ago—was an act of Divine intervention, he believes. No sooner had I given the bell rope a good tug than a diminutive child from the house next door came running. “Can I ring the bell?” Our host's gentle response made a child happy and reflected the kind of man he is. Charlie, as he called her, comes every day to share lunch with him.
I have reflected on this experience often since that visit. It seems to me that in this old-timer I saw an illustration of the work of the Master Craftsman. Gently He welcomes all as He seeks to scrape away our artificialities and to replace them with the beauty of His own character. But just as Fred sometimes needs to use sterner methods to repair damage, so our Master may need to excise some fault in us. If we will receive it, the result will be a beautiful product, a product that will attract the Charlies of this world. In the meantime, Fred's dedication and commitment to the restoration is as much an act of worship as the grandest sermon.
John Waters, a retired educator living in Lilydale, Victoria, has served the Church in Australia, New Zealand and North America.