Australia

Colin Buchanan sings about Mr Eternity

Remembering the man who wrote a one word sermon on the streets

Award-winning musician Colin Buchanan will perform a special tribute tomorrow to the man who emblazoned Sydney and Melbourne with “Eternity”.

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To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Arthur Stace, Buchanan wrote Eternity (Arthur Stace). During a 10:30am commemorative service tomorrow for Stace at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, Buchanan will perform the song – which you can listen to below.

Buchanan’s lyrical tribute to Arthur Stace includes:

Arthur felt the chalk inside his pocket
And although he could barely write his name
He wrote that word in copperplate perfection
Again and again and again
For years and years we’d no idea who did it
He wandered Sydney’s darkened streets alone
Then finally at 83 old Arthur
Dropped his chalk and finally headed home

CHORUS

Eternity
Is just in front of you
Eternity
Is coming into view
Arthur Stace
Just wait and see…
Eternity
Is just in front of you
Eternity
Is coming into view
Arthur Stace
Just wait and see
There’s so much more
You’re destined for Eternity

Buchanan’s song and the Sydney service are among the many celebrations planned this year to remember Arthur Stace. In October, Bible Society Australia will publish Mr Eternity by Roy Williams and Elizabeth Meyers. This biography will reveals truths and myths about Australia’s unusual evangelist and Eternity has a sneak preview of it.

The last days of Mr Eternity

During the last few months of Arthur’s life he was confined to bed at Hammondville. It appears that, in or about April of 1967, he suffered a stroke. He was still able to receive visitors, however, and just a few days before his death was well enough to speak to the Rev. Stewart Mitchell, the minister at Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle.

According to Mitchell, Arthur said to him: “Pastor, I am now ready and eager to go and meet my Lord and Saviour.” Mitchell demurred: “Arthur, lad, we want you about for a long time yet.” But Arthur was serene, and gently rebuked his pastor with a witticism: “Well, a chap has to go sometime, you know.”

Word spread in Baptist circles that their most famous son was fading fast. John Ridley came to Hammondville, accompanied by his chauffeur, Paddy Newnham. Ridley leant over the shrunken figure and whispered tenderly in his ear: “Arthur, it’s John – and Jesus is here.” But there was no response.

On Saturday, 29 July 1967, in the evening, Edith Summergreene made her way out to Hammondville. By then in her mid-forties, she has not seen Arthur since 1953, the year she moved back to Tamworth, but had always remained deeply fond of him and Pearl for their kindnesses in the 1940s at the Tabernacle. Edith’s account of what happened that evening is truly beautiful:

I asked after Arthur. The matron told me that he was unconscious and would not know me. I said: “May I see him?” He was in a cot with the sides up and I took his hand and said, “Arthur, it is Edith.” There was no response. I held his hands in mine and started quoting John 14 … I did not get through more than five or six verses and I looked at his dear face and there was a big fat teardrop ready to fall. PRAISE THE LORD.

The next day, Sunday, 30 July 1967, Arthur breathed his last. He passed away in the evening and then – as Christians believe – saw God face to face.

An excerpt from Mr Eternity, a forthcoming book by Roy Williams and Elizabeth Meyers

Michael Jensen has also written “A Moment of Eternity”, a reflection about Stace, his impact and inspiration.

Before dawn, Sydney smells of the decaying fruit of the ancient fig trees and stale beer.

That musty smell is one of Sydney’s few constants, for, like a snake shedding its skin, it is always changing to match its growth. Only the facades of the old pubs along Broadway remain. The old factories and the breweries have been levelled, and in their place are now sprouting glassy apartment complexes. The old church of St Barnabas, Broadway disappeared in flames a few years back when rats chewed through the power cables, and has risen again as a shiny white new structure.

But still the word would come, however temporarily it stayed: Eternity.

But these are the streets which once belonged to one of Sydney’s most legendary and elusive characters. If you had been a shift worker at Tooth’s Brewery knocking off at dawn in the 1940s and 50s, you might have glimpsed the gaunt figure of an old man hunched over on the pavement. On closer inspection, you would notice that he was writing with a piece of chalk, in an immaculate copperplate hand, one single word: ‘Eternity’.

Walking a hundred yards further, he would stoop again and write the same word: Eternity. The workers of Sydney, trudging to the beat of the daily routine, would smudge it with their feet. The heavy rains that regularly drench the city would wipe the slate clean. But still the word would come, however temporarily it stayed: Eternity.

Arthur Stace was a child of the city’s underside.

For years, the identity of the writer was unknown to Sydney-siders – a living ghost of the city. But however secretive and elusive he was, he was certainly no ghost. The old man, it turned out, was a returned soldier and reformed alcoholic named Arthur Stace.

Stace was a child of the city’s underside. Born of hard-drinking parents in working class Balmain, he had fallen into a life of petty crime as a teenager, for which he spent some time in jail. Lacking an education, he at one stage worked as a runner for his sister’s brothel. He also began to drink heavily

Stace returned from WWI half-blind and gassed. Subsequently, his life spiralled out of control. He was a hopeless drunk, consuming bottles of methylated spirits when that was all he could afford.

Things would never be the same for the desperate Stace.

Life took a dramatic turn for him, though, when he walked through the doors of St Barnabas, Broadway one evening in mid-1930. In the pulpit stood another extraordinary man of Sydney, the Reverend RBS Hammond. Hammond had a ministry to the hundreds of homeless and poverty-stricken men in inner city Sydney – a problem exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression. The message that night so gripped Arthur Stace that he went over to Victoria Park and, kneeling amidst the fig trees, gave his life to Jesus Christ.

Things would never be the same for the desperate Stace. He gave up the drink, for a start. A couple of years after that, he turned up to hear the well-known evangelist John G. Ridley preach on the subject of ‘The Echoes of Eternity’. What did Ridley say that night?

“Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You’ve got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?”

But the One who inhabits eternity has approached us.

Time had not been kind to Arthur Stace, and yet he put his hope in Eternity. His mind and body were scarred by his experiences, and he was little use to anyone from a human point of view. Other than grog, nothing had gripped him until this moment when he caught a glimpse of “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity” (KJV, Isaiah 57:15, the text from which Ridley preached that night). Evading cruel time is not the greatest challenge a human being has to face, it turns out. It is the approach of Eternity, which we cannot evade.

But the One who inhabits eternity has approached us. He has walked the same dusty ground and lived in a body exposed to the ravages of time. That verse from Isaiah 57, which describes God in such lofty terms continues:

“I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”

“I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write Eternity.” – Arthur Stace

The God of Eternity dwells with such as Arthur Stace, the broken thief and drunk. Stace later said:

“Eternity went ringing through my brain and suddenly I began crying and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write Eternity.”

Writing was not Stace’s strong suit, to be fair. He claimed that he could barely even write his own name. He told a journalist from the Sydney Sun that “the word ‘Eternity’ came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it, and I still can’t.”

A minor miracle? A fraction of lucidity emanating from an otherwise addled brain? Whatever the explanation, Stace spent the rest of his life inscribing the message of Eternity on the pavements of the suburbs of inner Sydney – more than half a million times, on some counts. Though Stace is long gone, and only a couple of examples of his famous word remain, he soon became part of the city’s legend.

God, even in his eternity, has come looking for us in time

Thirty-three years after his death in 1967, they wrote Stace’s Eternity on the Harbour Bridge. It was to celebrate what was in fact a sliver in time, when the clocks tripped over from 23:59 on December 31st 1999 to midnight on 1st January 2000. Nothing could have been less eternal than that moment of cork-popping excitement. The fireworks exploded or glowed, and then burnt out.

Though it was pretentious and self-congratulatory where he was anonymous and humble, it was uncannily like Stace’s message in chalk. It was an ephemeral invitation to consider the eternal, a momentary invasion of that which transcends mere moments. It was a challenge to the ego of the city and its inhabitants. You look permanent and unsurpassable, as if you have been here forever and will stand forever. The old hymn puts it beautifully:

“Frail as summer’s flower we flourish

Blows the wind and we are gone.”

Like the chalk on the pavement, we are soon erased. And yet, (as Stace instinctively knew when he heard of it) Eternity has walked into the middle of time, humble and compassionate, speaking a word of mercy and hope to the lowly and rejected. In that glimpse of Eternity, we are confronted with our own vulnerability and temporality. But we are also given the news that God, even in his eternity, has come looking for us in time.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books. If you would like to receive a daily devotional from Michael Jensen, email him at [email protected]

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Pray that today’s Christians will be as bold as Arthur Stace at spreading the news of Eternity

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