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Review: Geoffrey Blackburn, ‘Beyond Imagining’

The Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Blackburn (‘Geoff’ as we affectionately call him) has had a long, fortunate life. Among Australian Baptists, he would be among the four ‘most admired’ (alongside Principal G.H. Morling, F. W. Boreham, and Dr. Noel Vose).

Geoff has just (self-) published his memoirs – ‘Beyond Imagining: 65 Years of Christian Ministry’ (from the text ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man (sic.), the things which God has prepared for them that love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).

You wonder how Geoff has fitted so much into one life. Like Caleb, he’s lost none of his youthful enthusiasm and vigor: in his 80s he’s still going strong. Geoff has enjoyed the esteem and respect of every group he’s been part of. He’s been President-General of the Baptist Union of Australia, Vice-President of the Baptist World Alliance (and speaker on at least one occasion at a BWA plenary session) and President of the Baptist Union of Victoria. He has been honored with the OAM – the Medal of the Order of Australia – plus Rotary, Ethnic Baptist churches ‘awards’ etc. etc.

This book is not a ‘critical history’ of the Baptists. It’s to be read as memoirs. Geoff is constitutionally unable to utter a ‘discouraging word’ (reminds me of the Scottish preacher of whom it was said ‘All his geese were swans’). He’s a modern Nathaniel, in whom there is no guile. There’s very little about the ferment of great theological ideas, or clashes of people or groups within the Baptist denomination. (It’s interesting to note the people with whom he worked – Superintendents of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Baptist College principal/s – even the great F.W. Boreham – who hardly get a mention). The only two negatives I can recall are his criticism of the time pastoral students (used to) spend learning Greek and Hebrew (p.52), and his gentle rebuke of the narrowness of conservative Baptists who won’t agree to serious ‘fellowshipping’ with Christians of other denominations. (‘I wish Australian Baptists were not so isolationist…’ Let’s be bridge- not fence-builders, he urges).

Geoff’s had a fortunate life, but not an easy one. As a young pastor he rode his bicycle in all weathers to visit his flock. The immobilizing, painful arthritic condition of his first wife Edna, and the serious accident suffered by his current wife, Jessie, in Russia, were enough to ‘knock the stuffing’ out of a lesser man.

He has enjoyed a diversity of ministries – ‘home missionary’ in rural churches, State youth director, padre in the War, editor of Baptist Sunday School materials, full-time and part-time ministries in suburban and city churches, and faithful service on many Baptist committees… Geoff has traveled extensively, and has an amazing memory (or good diaries) for places, names and events. His memory for names (for example, of children to older people at Syndal), has been legendary…

As a young pastor of the neighboring church to Geoff’s in the 1970s (he was at Syndal when I was pastoring what was then Blackburn Baptist Church) , I used to be amazed that he would turn up when I led seminars on this and that… What could I teach him? But he’s always been a teachable man. He has two earned doctorates – the first, a Ph.D. on the early church’s catechetical methods, the second, a Doctor of Ministry, completed at Fuller Seminary in his 70s, on ethnic ministries. (Interestingly, Geoff adjusted an overseas schedule to attend his graduation from Fuller; I was in the U.S. speaking at a conference, and couldn’t be bothered going to Pasadena to collect mine!).

I have always appreciated Geoff’s gentle wisdom. When a ‘call’ came for me to leave Blackburn and move to a ministry in Canada, Geoff was the person I immediately consulted.

Now if you wanted to be ‘picky’ you might be critical of some editing oversights. Geoff repeats himself occasionally (three times we learn that 100 million people lost their lives in World War 2, twice we are told that as a 12-year-old he with his Sunday School friends he raised money for bricks for the Canberra Baptist Church). But this was all hand-written, then typed: at the book’s launch Geoff confessed to his antipathy towards computers!

Some things you wonder about. Like: how could anyone (at Syndal Baptist Church) vote _against_ a man like this when considering him to be their pastor? Jan and I were members at Heathmont Baptist Church when Geoff was a part-time member of the pastoral team: and they let him go!

This book ought to be compulsory reading for all Australian Baptist – and perhaps other – theological students. They might not resonate with all the details, places and names, but that doesn’t matter. They can skip some of those paragraphs. And they ought not to be too bothered by old-fashioned exclusive language (‘to sustain a long ministry a man must endeavour to keep himself mentally and spiritually fit’). They mightn’t be in the ‘solid evangelical’ theological camp he inhabits with deep conviction. But Geoff’s memoirs will give them a feel for how a humble, faithful, irenic yet effective ministry is lived in our day. ‘Wise elders’ are in short supply: but here we have a true patriarch – a ‘legend’ as the young might say…

A few wise or interesting excerpts:

# ‘A danger in ministry is staleness that can turn to burnout. Fortunately there are many ways a minister can avoid staleness such as attending seminars, spiritual retreats and doing short courses of study… These gatherings enabled me to keep up contact with [fellow-] ministers…’ (p. 196).

# ‘The expatriate Christian community built a large A-frame church. The sight of such a visible Christian symbol in Kabul so incensed fanatical local Muslims that they pulled it down, stone by stone, before it had been occupied. The government did nothing to stop them’ (p.275).

# At the book’s end (p. 322) he quotes with favour/fervour a prayer by Harry Emerson Fosdick: ‘My soul, be broad in your sympathies; but O my soul, go deep in your convictions’

# And two stanzas from F W Faber’s great hymn: ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy/ Like the wideness of the sea; /There’s a kindness in his justice, / Which is more than liberty… There is no place where earth’s sorrows / Are more felt than up in heaven: / There is no place where earth’s failings / Have such kindly judgement given.’

I think it’s a terrific read!

Copies of the book can obtained from Geoff (track him down through the Baptist Union of Victoria). Typically he won’t make a profit – any spare proceeds go towards one of his favorite missionary causes.

Shalom! Rowland Croucher http://jmm.aaa.net.au


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