As we approached the new millennium in December, 1999 there were concerns that computer systems would crash, causing mayhem around the globe. Some feared that it may usher in the end of the world.
The first pictures from a new year generally come from Sydney, Australia. The new millennium in 2000 was no exception. On 1 January, over two billion people throughout the world saw the word ‘Eternity’ illuminated and writ large on the side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A remarkable story lies behind the reference to that word.
Arthur Stace was born in a Sydney slum on 9 February, 1885. His parents were alcoholics and their five children also became addicted to alcohol. His two sisters operated a brothel and both his parents and four siblings eventually died as drunkards and derelicts.
Deprived of parental support, Arthur had to survive by his wits and also fell into petty theft. He would steal milk from doorsteps, pick scraps of food out of garbage bins and pilfer goods from shops. He was illiterate, having had hardly any education. By fifteen he was in jail.
Arthur joined the army in 1916, serving in the Great War. Short of troops, the Australian Army accepted Arthur in spite of his small stature (5’3” and 7 stone) and his criminal record.
He served in France as a stretcher bearer and would have witnessed the most appalling scenes when recovering the shattered bodies of his mates. He returned from the war after being gassed and partially blinded in one eye.
Back in Sydney, Arthur returned to his old habits and became so addicted to alcohol that he could only afford to drink methylated spirits.
He heard that a cup of tea and something to eat was available at St Barnabas Church, Broadway. It was Wednesday, 6 August 1930 and about 300 were present at the men’s meeting, mostly down-and-outs.
Archdeacon R.B.S. Hammond led as the hearers sat through an hour and a half of gospel preaching before they received their tea and food.
Arthur noticed six people on a separate seat, all looking very clean and quite different from the 300 grubby-looking men in the room. The man sitting next to him was a well-known criminal and Arthur asked him, ‘Who are they?’
The man replied, ‘I reckon that they be Christians’. Arthur responded, ‘Well look at them and look at us. I want what they have got’.
Arthur Stace knew that his life was in a mess. He knew that he needed to change. And he knew that he needed help. He was wonderfully converted and he left the meeting a changed man. Over the next few weeks, he found strength to give up drink and find a job.
A few months later, the evangelist John Ridley came to preach in Sydney. Arthur was particularly interested in hearing him because Ridley had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in France in 1917.
When Ridley said, ‘I wish I could shout “Eternity” through the streets of Sydney’, the word resonated with Arthur who, like Ridley, had faced his own mortality daily on the battlefields of France.
Stace never forgot the refrain of Ridley shouting ‘Eternity! Eternity!’ and the words stayed with him as he left the church.
He recalled. ‘Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call to write Eternity. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down there and wrote Eternity’.
Stace would continue to do this for the next 33 years of his life. As he walked, every so often he would stop, pull out a yellow crayon, bend down and write on the pavement in large, elegant copperplate the word Eternity. He would move on a hundred metres or so and write it again.
His daily routine for over 35 years was to rise at about 4:00am, pray for an hour and have breakfast. He would then set out for the inner-city suburb or district he had in mind or had felt led to, arriving there before dawn and commencing his work.
Over twenty years passed before he was found to be the ‘Eternity’ writer. Years later, Arthur said, ‘I’ve been writing it at least 50 times a day ever since’. The word appeared over half a million times around Sydney during Stace’s lifetime.
Arthur was illiterate, hardly able to write his own name, but he could write Eternity in elegant script. He also memorised parts of the Bible and preached on the streets of Sydney.
Saturday nights would see him with a loudspeaker on a makeshift podium outside Sydney Town Hall, preaching to down-and-outs.
On 22 January 1942, Arthur married Ellen Esther (Pearl) Dawson at St Barnabas Anglican Church, Sydney. Pearl died in 1961 and Arthur died in a nursing home, aged 83, on 30 July 1967.
Ten years after his death, the architect Ridley Smith (designer of Sydney Square by St Andrew’s Cathedral) had the word Eternity cast in aluminium and set in pebbles near the Sydney Square waterfall. It is also found at the foot of Arthur’s grave in the Botany Cemetery.
The years pass by so quickly but eternity is forever. May we be determined to make the best use of our short time on earth. If you do not know the Lord Jesus as your Saviour, think about eternity and the awful plight of an eternity without heaven and without God.
Alec Taylor is author of The Pilgrim Bible Notes and former pastor.