April 3, 2023

Mr Beales

Mr Beales was my form teacher in my one and only year at John Curtin Senior High School in the port town of Fremantle, here in Western Australia, back in 1980.

Freo – as we call it – was not the hip, urban, and expensive place it is today, and the school was a mixed bag of students to say the least. When the sheep ships came into port, the stink of thousands of live sheep (and probably, and shamefully, more than a few dead ones) would infest the school all day, a mixture of lanolin, poo and general rot.

There was something immediately calm about Mr Beales. He was the classic non-anxious presence. The first weeks of high school can be daunting. But Mr Beales was chill. Chill and kind. He had an English accent, blonde, foppish hair, John Lennon glasses and a slight lisp. He taught English, of course. Not to my class, sadly, but to the hard scrabble classes for whom Mr Beales was a mere irritant to their lives.

But for me? He was Dumbeldore, Mr Keating from Dead Poets Society, and Lisa Simpson’s relief teacher who played the guitar in class, all rolled into one. Teacher admiration from twenty paces. Mr Beales never raised his voice, because he never had to. All of the students in the form class liked him. And he clearly liked them.

A few weeks after school started, my twin brother and I timidly ventured to the advertised Christian Union group, being held behind one of the non-descript sliding doors down one of the non-descript open corridors one Tuesday lunchtime.

We walked in. Mr Beales greeted us. A Christian! Mr Beales was a Christian. Kinda made sense.

And so we went to the Christian group throughout the three terms we were at the school. Now it’s worth remembering at this point that our brand of Christianity was down the, shall we say, tighter end of the spectrum culturally. That’s what we were brought up on and that’s what we adhered to, in a rather unthinking manner. But there was something about the way Mr Beales just did “the Jesus stuff” that was gentler, though no less compelling.

At the end of the term, there was an invite for the whole Christian Union group to Mr Beales house for dinner together. It was a funky Freo house with a touch of bohemian (or so I now realise). Plants, rugs, easy chairs. A guitar in the corner. Oh, and a Mrs Beales; slight, fey, kinda pixie-like and just as chill as Mr Beales. We ate great food, sang some worship songs as Mr Beales played guitar (or was it Mrs Beales, my memory’s not so sure). They were songs that we would never have sung in our church, and I remember thinking “I could do the Christian stuff this way for sure.”

And Mr Beales was also a good rugby player. And he played in the Sunday league. I hadn’t remembered that point. But I reminded my twin brother of Mr Beales the other week and he said “I remember being shocked that he was a Christian and played rugby on Sunday!” Which says as much about us at the time as it does about Mr Beales.

I don’t remember too much more than that, and before we knew it our parents had decided to return to Northern Ireland to live (definitely not a chill place in terms of Christianity), and we finished up at school at the end of term three. I remember telling my bestest friend Robert that we were leaving, and we’d been friends since Year 2 at Palmyra Primary School. In terms of friendship it couldn’t be more ancient.

And so we returned to Northern Ireland, only to return to Australia as a family, tail between legs two years later, and two years after that before I started university, our home family life was detonated and torn apart when my father left.

I have often thought about Mr Beales in the ensuing years, and there have been chill teachers like him in my life, many of whom I still hold in high regard. But as a first influence in high school, and as an example of a Christian in a decidedly non-Christian setting, Mr Beales was my standard.

Of course I never heard from him again.

Until just under two years ago. For here’s the funny thing. When my book came out, Mr Beales saw it advertised, and he said to his wife (who I know now as Janey), that he had had a Stephen McAlpine in his “only” year of teaching, and wondered if it would be him.

Did you get that? His “only” year of teaching. And he was only 24! Here was me thinking he was a skilled, long term teacher who knew his lane so well that the drive was a breeze, and yet he only taught for one year! For as it turns out, Mr Beales ended up getting ordained and being involved in evangelism, parish ministry, and church planting in the Anglican church in Perth, Melbourne and the UK where he (Mr Beales is called David), and Janey, have lived for many years. They’ve been involved with church planting in the UK, and have crossed paths with several of the missional church leaders I have known over the years.

Well, anyway, social media being what it is, Mr Beales (sorry, it’s hard to call you David, Mr Beales), soon found his way to me, and we had a great Zoom conversation, prayer and a continued off-and-on chat online over the next couple of COVID years.

And then earlier this year, on a stifling hot Perth day, Mr and Mrs Beales (David and Janey) had lunch with me right around the corner from my house at the Bassendean Hotel. He’s older of course, with a little less hair, no glasses, but still with the gentle English lisp. And Janey with that same pixie air, albeit etched with the many years of ministry, joys, tears, laughter, disappointments. But both still loving Jesus. And just as chill. And just as kind.

The Beales still have family living here in Australia, and indeed their son is an Anglican minister here, and I will be speaking to a group that includes him later in the year. Oh, and he plays guitar and writes songs too. No surprises really.

It was a great time over lunch. But also a time to say thank you to Mr Beales, who in his quiet, gentle way showed me what an intentional Christian life looked like in a setting in which very few people were Christian, and very few Christians seemed to be like Mr Beales. And of course Mr Beales was kinda surprised that I felt like that about him, but it makes sense on this side of it all.

And it got me thinking that there’s just something that “hits different” about the non-anxious Christian presence in a secular setting. Something that although they don’t go out to try and self-consciously craft it, just happens to be. Something that’s due, in no small way, to the presence of the Spirit of God in their lives. Something that they take with them wherever in the world they go.

Something you take with you wherever in the world you go. Something that the world does not have, but that, if we just take our time to live it out in that non-anxious Mr Beales way, is compelling to people even if they do not know why. And the challenge of course is to hand it on – to hand on that Bealesesque manner to another generation, mired as it is in an age of deep anxiety.

Who is your Mr Beales? And who will you be a Mr Beales to?

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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