on birthdays with a zero…

My youngest is just days away from a very special birthday. The one in which she reaches the magical double-figure mark. She’s bounding around the house with barely contained excitement, the anticipation of the big day breaking forth in unexpected moments as she thinks about a party with her friends, a day with her family, and her first electronic gadget (the iPod has become a de-facto rite of passage at age 10 in our house…please go gentle on the judgement of our parenting choices!).

Lots of birthdays hold significant meaning when you’re young. Double figures. Teenager-hood. Sixteen. The 18 year old adult. The 21st. Time honoured significance in each of those birthdays.

It seems that once you reach a certain age though, birthdays lose something of that magic. Sure it’s nice to have a special dinner with the family, and to receive some best wishes from friends, but it’s not quite as enchanted as when you’re a kid.

Except if the birthday in question has a zero in it.

Maybe its just not possible to keep up the enthusiasm year-in and year-out for birthdays, so we ration it to once every ten years instead. Turning 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and the grand old century mark, these are special days.  Often we think of them as marking a transition point too, onward to the next stage of life.

Zero birthdays give us pause to reflect not just on the last year, but on the last stage of life, the last decade or more. And to think far more than 12 months ahead, pondering what is to come, what choices we’ll make, what the next stage of life holds in store for us.

Anniversaries are a bit the same. Oh Sheri and I will definitely mark the passing of our 22nd anniversary later this year, but we’re already planning toward the 30th in a much bigger way.

A zero is just one number among ten, but somehow the zero makes it special

All of which comes into sharp focus this week.

Today marks the 40th Anniversary of the Uniting Church’s formal birth on June 22nd 1977. Born of the union of the Methodist, Congregational and (a chunk of) Presbyterian churches in Australia, the UCA is uniquely Australia, and in-spite of inheriting centuries of history and tradition of its member churches, very young (in church terms) at just 40.

I’ve spent most of my life in and around Uniting Church congregations, from my earliest days at Wulguru Uniting, through to our family’s current participation with the great crew at Toowong Uniting. And I’ve now worked for the UC on and off for getting up toward twenty years. So it’s been a significant part of my life for all of the 40 years of its existence.

The challenges facing the Uniting Church are well documented. Like many churches in western society, numbers are down. Like many churches in western society, confidence has taken a battering. Like many institutions (including churches) in western society, bad (very, very bad) behaviour by some in our name have harmed vulnerable people (which to my very great shame and anger includes the abuse of children). We are, in general terms, an aging community, in old and often quite uninspiring buildings, and at times more focussed on our own comfort than the communities to which we are sent.

All of these things are (arguably) true.

But still I find myself hopeful about the future of this movement (at our best, we’re a movement…at our worst an institution).

There are a host of emerging leaders who are genuinely concerned with what it means to help the church and its people join in God’s mission in the 21st century. There are a host of congregations who are not just committed to one another, but are open to innovation. There is a willingness (sure, sometimes grudging) to enter into conversations with Australians about contemporary issues like asylum seeker policy, sexuality, gender-based violence, multi-culturalism, multi-faith, relationships between first and second people of Australia…to name just a few. I like that this church puts its money where its mouth is in terms of being present in small remote communities, taking multi-cultural and cross-cultural community seriously, and serving the wider community through the work of our caring services, schools and colleges.

These things aren’t always easy in an organisation which while young (40 is the new 30!) still carries the weight of tradition.

So, as this zero birthday rolls around for the community/movement/organisation/institution that I’m a part of, I’m reflecting on what has been, on what challenges face us, and on what might become.

I’m glad that the Uniting Church is gradually growing into its own skin, as challenging as that journey continues to be.

And I’m glad to be here.


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