Distressingly desensitised

lung_cancer_awarenessI headed to the chemo ward last week, much the same as any other week. But there was a difference—it wasn’t my week for treatment. I was visiting a friend who was having chemo for the first time and I figured he’d like some support.

As I drove to the hospital I became distressed. Not because I was heading to my least favourite place in the universe. Not because my friend had cancer. Not because he was only 17 years of age.

I was upset that the whole experience seemed normal. It seemed okay to be visiting a boy with cancer. I wasn’t shocked or horrified that this should be happening to someone so young and fit, who had their whole life ahead of them. There were no cries or tears or anger. I realised that cancer had become normalised for me. And I hated that fact.

There is nothing normal or acceptable about cancer. It’s a blight. It’s a parasite. It feeds on life. It steals life. It destroys life.

Dear God, please fix my blurred vision to see things for what they truly are. May I not grow desensitised to disease and suffering and death. May I not grow blasé to the horrors of cancer. Enable me to weep with those who weep. Fill my heart with compassion and kindness. Strengthen my hope in your saving grace and lead me to share this with others.

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Gratias – Mr Nicholls

IMG_1387Over the last weekend I returned to the city of Launceston where I’d lived from 1972 to 1974. I felt a sense of nostalgia flying over the Bass Strait. We drove past the church in Margaret Street where I’d been to Sunday School and boy scouts. Faces and a few names came to mind. Happy times. Times of mischief. Losing my voice for a couple of weeks as I dived to catch a ball and coat-hangered myself on the edge of a wooden bench.

I remembered a man at the church—I think it was Mr Nicholls—asking me if I was left or right handed. He planned to buy me a fishing rod and reel and he wanted to know what type of reel to get. I was right handed, so he bought me a left handed reel! I’ve used the same fickle approach with my kids as he thought it made more sense to have your strongest hand on the rod.

Mr Nicholls was simply a kind-hearted bloke in our church. Neither of my parents fished, so he stepped into the gap. He introduced me to what would become a lifetime hobby. To be fair, my dad sewed my first rod and tackle bag, and my mum would reimburse me for bait if I provided fish for a meal. I thank Mr Nicholls because he demonstrated that adults can have a major influence on the life of kids—even when they’re not our own. He taught me something about being generous and taking an active in interest in others.

IMG_2031I still love throwing a line in the water. It doesn’t happen that often, but there’s something peaceful about watching the sun rise over the ocean as I wait for the first bites of the morning. There’s not too many other things that get me up before dawn. It’s thrilling to hook into a boiling school of tailor, to watch a massive barramundi do all it can to throw the hook, or to come home with a heavy bag of fresh fish. I enjoy the solace of being alone with my thoughts.

IMG_1155Fishing has also been fun for my family. Fiona and I used to share a kiss if we caught more than one whiting on the same worm! The kids would spend hours with me digging for pippis, catching little (and sometimes bigger) fish. Sometimes we’ve depended on catching fish for food and managed to catch enough to keep us going. One time we caught so many fish my reel seized up and our bags broke from the weight of our catch.

We’ve had some unbelievable moments, like the time Matthew got a fish hook through his finger, while it was still attached to a live barramundi, with our whole family in 4 meter tinny in crocodile infested waters in Kakadu. This was after someone yelled at him to stop hanging his feet over the side. And this was just before a 5 metre croc leapt vertically out of the water to take a large bird. He got to publish his story in a national fishing magazine at the age of 9!

There’ve also been some sobering moments. Like the friend who took his two boys fishing and only brought one home, after a large wave tossed his son into the ocean. Fishing has brought me great joy, but it’s also been the context of major tragedy for others. We bathe in the wonder of this beautiful creation and yet we’re so small and exposed. Each time I return home without having caught a fish I’m reminded that I’m not in control of this world—I depend on the one who made it and sustains it. God is the one who gives me my daily bread and my occasional fish.

And I thank God for introducing me to Mr Nicholls.

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Gratias — Peter Nelson

This is the first of a new series of posts that I’m planning, called gratias (or thanks). I’m indebted to so many people throughout my life who have influenced, shaped, challenged, and supported me in so many meaningful ways. My plan is to pay tribute to some of these people, and in so doing to bring a word of encouragement to you.

Peter Nelson

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 1.45.13 pmDuring my student ministry in the late 1990s I got to know a number of athletes associated with the Australian Institute of Sport. Each of them spoke of the impact of a chaplain at the AIS, called Peter Nelson. Peter demonstrated concern for the personal and spiritual welfare of a large group of athletes, of various ages and maturity, across many different sports. It was a daunting responsibility that Peter exercised with humility and grace, without regard to thanks or reward.

I was privileged to meet Peter and discover his servant-hearted attitude to the athletes. He invited me to share in this ministry with him, and so I was introduced to the world of sports chaplaincy.

A number of things stand out about Peter. When we first met, Peter would work a newspaper round in the early hours of the morning so as to fund his ministry among the athletes. He wanted to offer a service without cost to others. He lived out the words of the Apostle Paul:

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16-18)

Peter has maintained this attitude, not looking for perks or privileges. He is committed to giving rather than receiving, often investing his personal funds into buying bibles, books, or other things to offer to the athletes.

I worked alongside Peter for four to five years with the chaplaincy at the AIS. During this time I witnessed a consistent model of gentleness and respect for others. Peter was a great listener who displayed deep empathy for others. His counsel was valued by many, but it was his faithful and generous service of others that left the deepest mark. To this day, I hear testimonies of Peter’s graciousness from those who have met him. I expect that there are many who would say that it is the calibre of Peter’s life that has led them to take the message of Christianity seriously.

Peter is one who labours in prayer for others. We held a weekly prayer meeting at the AIS and Peter would always be there praying. Even if no one else was to turn up, we could be confident that Peter would keep his promises to pray for us.

After leaving the AIS and beginning chaplaincy with the Brumbies, I would continue to seek time with Peter on a regular basis. I’d be encouraged by his questions and genuine interest in my welfare. He demonstrated his faithfulness in consistently praying for others. Though he was a very busy man, he always conveyed a sense of being available and interested.

Peter agreed to be a member of our church (Crossroads) board of reference. This is a body of men and women known for their maturity and wisdom. We had cause to engage Peter on a number of occasions to assist us to make careful decisions as a church. He imparted much wisdom as we navigated our way through some difficult and painful relational issues. In these matters, Peter would often help us to slow down and consider the various sides of the matters. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about others—ever!

At a time when many are thinking merely of themselves and personal pleasures, Peter uses his ‘retirement’ to invest in the lives of others. And at 71, he’s still a pretty handy cricketer. More significantly, he continues his chaplaincy, mentors others, and provides leadership to the Canberra Aboriginal Church and the Canberra Austral-Asian Christian Church. Most of all he loves and serves Jesus. He reminds me of Timothy.

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Philippians 2:19-22)

I thank God for letting me learn from Peter Nelson.

(Photo by Matt Bedford, Canberra Times)

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Unsolicited review

By Linden Vine (originally posted on her own blog)

If you’ve been reading my blog or followed me on Instagram for any length of time, you’ll know that I am Christian. This blog post isn’t about quilting, or creativity or business tools particularly; it’s about a book that I’ve read recently, written by the pastor of my church. I should add that this is an unsolicited book review.

Almost four years ago, David McDonald, who is now the pastor of the church I attend, was diagnosed with Stage Four Terminal Inoperable Lung Cancer and was given not very long to live. Although I don’t know him very well, I still remember the shock I felt when we heard – healthy almost-fifty-year-old non-smoking pastors who are about to plant a new church in Darwin aren’t supposed to get Stage Four Terminal Inoperable Lung Cancer.

By the grace of God, Dave now has no evidence of disease in his body and is still passionately teaching people about the Bible and Jesus, as well as still receiving three-weekly chemotherapy treatments.

Two years ago, Dave wrote a book about his experience, Hope Beyond Cure. It has taken me until now to read it, I’m not sure quite why. I bought it Sunday morning and finished it in one sitting on Sunday night whilst listening to Jonas Kaufmann’s glorious singing and with my dear son asleep next to me.

A little over four years ago my son got very sick and spent three weeks in hospital. For some of those three weeks we didn’t know if he would live – it was the scariest thing I’ve experienced as a parent and I pray that I never have to again. He still has health ramifications from this event and catches everything that comes his way. This is the book I would have benefited greatly from reading at the time, had it been written then, although paradoxically I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind in the midst of it.

Christians and non-Christians alike have differing attitudes to death. At the time of my son’s illness, a well-meaning person who should have known better told me not to worry because if my son did die, we were certain that he would go to heaven and be with God. Although true, it’s not what you want to hear when your toddler is lying with tubes coming out of everywhere and the doctors can’t tell you what’s wrong. For three weeks we prayed desperately that God would allow him to live. Another person decided it was appropriate to tell me that it would have been better if we withheld treatment and let him die, as by letting him live we were changing the timing of his death and thereby allowing him to suffer further later in life.

So, what of the book? Dave starts by talking about his diagnosis and the weeks that followed – he is blatantly honest about his feelings as he faced what he thought was his imminent death. It was refreshing to hear that someone whose job it is to teach the Bible and encourage others about God was questioning God at a time of intense pain. I have an idea that “successful Christians” (what a ridiculous term that is!) are somehow above doubt and have got it all together.

The book moves on to ask the question – “if there is no cure, is there still hope”? Dave then clearly and methodically gives the reasons why Christians believe that God provides a Hope Beyond Cure. He references the Bible often throughout the book. The tone of the book is genuine and very straightforward without being at all condescending. Most importantly, it discusses the fact that Jesus was proved to be historically real and that His death and resurrection can therefore be trusted. It is aimed at people who have either experienced suffering, or are caring for someone who is and who is searching for answers.

One of the hardest things about suffering is that God doesn’t promise to ‘fix’ everything for us. I have had chronic, often daily migraines since I was a teenager. I have prayed more times than you could imagine for them to be gone. This book served as a gentle reminder that as a Christian, there are no migraines, cancer or illness at all in heaven (happy day) and that we will be given new bodies, suitable for our new life there. There will be a time when there is no sickness, disease or death because Jesus conquered death when He died and was resurrected.

Another quote from the book that stuck with me is – “don’t let the good become the enemy of the best”. I’ve read that a number of times recently in a number of different places and it’s something I need to constantly keep in mind. We can get so caught up in the day to day minutiae of life and forget what is actually important. Facing death puts things in sharp focus.

So, what will change for me as a result of this book? As the risk of being terribly corny, it has encouraged me to live a more “authentic” life, one that is worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). This means there are changes to be made, specifically around the food I eat and the way I budget my time, most particularly the effort I put into building and expanding my business. Both are something I’ve been working on for quite a while now – perhaps this book has given me the impetus to keep going and not give up and indeed to step it up a notch.

I would encourage you to read this short book if you have ever wondered if there is reason to be hopeful. The book is available via Matthias Media. To read more of Dave’s blog posts, most specifically about his journey with cancer, go to http://www.hopebeyondcure.com or http://www.macarisms.com.

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IMG_1281Today is ‘Keep a low profile’ day. Well, I expect it will be for many. It’s actually R U OK day – a day to remind us all that it’s important to look out for one another. The trouble is that many will cringe if the only time people care for them is on a designated day. Every day is a good day to ask R U OK. So let’s slow down sufficiently to keep an eye out for each other.

I know a good number of my friends aren’t OK. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes often. I get this. Sometimes life feels like the walls are closing in on me and I need help to see the big picture.

So if you’re not OK, please reach out.

Beyond Blue  1300 224 636

Lifeline  13 11 14

(Original artwork by Liam)

Posted in Christian living, Journey with Cancer, Relationships, Stress and burnout | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

When Cancer Interrupts

when-cancer-interrupts-1Books on cancer—I tend to buy them, read them, and subject them to greater scrutiny than many other books. When Cancer Interrupts by David Powlison is more of an essay than a book, being only 20 pages in length. And this is one of it’s strengths. People facing such trauma as a cancer diagnosis are unlikely to settle down with anything that seems too heavy or unwieldy. Let me say at the outset that I am very encouraged and positive about this little book. But before I explain why, I need to express my only criticism and a plea to the author and publishers.

Please chop out the following sentences in the opening paragraph!

It is a bit like coming home after an evening out to discover your home broken into, every drawer ransacked, and your most treasured possession stolen. You feel betrayed. The enemy got inside.” (p3)

No it’s not! I’ve had the experience of having our house broken into a number of times. I’ve had my wedding ring stolen. I’ve had my motorcycle stolen. We’ve had treasured gifts to my wife stolen. But, with respect, this is nothing compared to being diagnosed with terminal cancer. This illustration trivialises the impact of being told that your life is now effectively over. Life is not equal to stuff.

Take out these sentences and I’m engaged. You understand my plight. You sympathise with my fears. You invite me to journey with you in your book.

Personally, I don’t think you need any metaphor. Just tell it like it is. You’ve been through it four times. Wow!

Having got that off my chest, let me say how wonderful this booklet is. I’d make this a go to book in ministering among those with cancer and their carers. In fact, I’d love it to be available online as a free pdf to get it out there as easily as possible (I had to order my copy from the USA).

Powlison brings comfort and hope by pointing his readers to the beautiful words of Scripture. I found myself saying “Yes. Yes. Yes.” as he quotes the words of the Spirit.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way.
(Psalm 46:1-2)

He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
(Hebrews 13:5)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
(Psalm 23:4)

When Cancer Interrupts takes us on a journey from fear to faith. It sympathises with our troubles; understands our uncertainties, pain, and fears; recognises our questions; identifies with our loss; feels our vulnerability; and calls us to acknowledge our struggles.

We are reminded that God is always with us and he invites us to cry out our troubles to him. He listens and cares. Rather than God being absent in the face of a serious cancer diagnosis, he remains close. God is the rock solid constant. He calls us to live out our faith in the midst of our fears. While we benefit so greatly from the love and support of close family and friends, Christ walks closely with us even through the valley of the shadow of death. He will stay with us even when and where others cannot.

Powlison calls us to cling to Christ by faith when we face the trials of cancer. I found the following words to be especially helpful and wise.

If your faith does not come to life in your weakness and need, then fear and false hopes take over. “I’m deathly afraid” and “I can beat this” are evil twins. On the one hand, fear bullies you into putting your ultimate hope in something that’s never good enough—doctors, percentages, treatments, a cure, strategies for self-healing, keeping yourself busy, self-numbing. On the other hand, pride and self-trust seduce you into thinking that you don’t need to be afraid, that faith is a crutch for weak people, and that you can be stronger than cancer and stronger than the shadow of death. (p14)

I find this to be so true. People speak of battling cancer, struggling against cancer, fighting the cancer. They’re admired for their strength, for being champions. And sadly we also describe losing the battle or giving up the fight. Why can’t we be allowed to acknowledge our weakness, our needs, our frailty, our dependence of people, medicine, circumstances outside our control, and ultimately our need for God.

This is not a self-centred or self-help book. It takes us to God, invites us to rest in him, and shows how we can reach out, even in our sickness, with love for others. Little things can make such a difference. And God is in the business of working his strength through our weaknesses.

If we don’t know the love of God in Jesus Christ, then this book points us to the source of life and hope. If we do know him, then we are called to come to him in our times of need.

David Powlison, thank you for writing this little book.

Posted in Books, Journey with Cancer | Tagged | 2 Comments

The daunting task of the preacher

Preaching can be an intimidating task. Knees quiver and voices quaver for some of us when we are forced to speak publicly. But it’s not the people in the audience that should cause us to tremble—here are four things more daunting still.

1. God

The task of the preacher is to speak about God. And we do it with God himself in the room. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of talking about somebody and then becoming aware that they can hear you. You didn’t realise they were there, and then you see them out of the corner of your eye. They’ve been listening in and heard every word you’ve said! The preacher has that experience every time they preach. We talk about God in the presence of God. How important it is we get it right. We’d do well to reflect on the lesson of Job in chapter 42, who basically says, “Look, I should shut up because I didn’t know who or what I was talking about.” And if he didn’t know what he was talking about—and he gets to be in the Bible—then we should be a little careful. Don’t you think?

2. God’s word

God’s word is a powerful thing. By God’s word the heavens and the earth were made. By God’s word this universe continues to function. By God’s word hearts and minds are brought from death to life. By God’s word the church is built and grows into maturity. Our task is to handle this powerful word of truth with great care (2 Timothy 2:15). I may get into trouble for mentioning this, but my brother recently removed his thumb—literally. One minute he is working in his garage with his circular saw. A short time later he is waking up in hospital with a surgically reattached thumb. A circular saw is a powerful instrument. It can do great good and great harm, so we must handle it with care. How much more the word of God. People depend on the preacher to take great care with God’s word. In fact, their lives depend on it.

3. The preacher’s heart

Let me state the bleeding obvious—I’m not perfect. Not even close. And every time I have to preach I’m reminded of this fact. I often feel like Isaiah who in chapter 6, when confronted with a vision of the holy God, says “Woe is me, because I’m a man of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah could have been speaking for me.

I know my own sinfulness. I know my weaknesses. I know the things that I do wrong. And yet here I am, charged with speaking about the holy and righteous God—in my state. How important that I remember that God has acted in Christ to cleanse me. How important to remember that God can even speak his truth through a donkey (Numbers 22).

4. The preacher’s life

God calls us to practice what we preach. The apostle Paul called people to follow his example and to copy his way of life. So much of what people learn is caught rather than taught. Our walk should match our talk. When it doesn’t we can quickly undermine our message. How many preachers have called their congregations to sexual purity only to have their porn addictions, their illicit affairs, or their heartless marriages exposed? We know our hypocrisy and they can easily lead to warped preaching. Some will avoid speaking on any topic they’re unwilling to confront themselves. Others will confront their failures by beating on others. They know the deep-rooted greed in their hearts and yet mercilessly challenge others to confront their idolatry and covetousness.

From the gospel to the gospel

We must always remember that ‘but for the grace of God go I’. We have received grace, mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. We bring nothing to the table—it is all of God. We should thank him and trust him alone. So too, our ministries are gifts of God’s grace (Romans 12:3-8). God doesn’t choose the clever, the strong, or the powerful because they are the ones qualified to be his ambassadors. He works among the weak and the imperfect to equip them for his service. God’s Spirit is at work in the messenger and the message. So let us never give up praying that God will transform our hearts and minds and work through our words and actions.

Our message is to be grounded in gospel. So too we must point people to the gospel. We have a powerful life-changing word from God. We must not water this down to a pathetic call to live better lives. Let people hear the hope. And hear it loud. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself. God is working for the good of all who love and trust him, to make us more like his Son, Christ Jesus. Self-righteous pretence leads to hell, but God-given righteousness, through faith in Christ, leads to everlasting life.

Let’s keep on with the daunting task of preaching the gospel.

Originally published on TGCAu site 20/8/15

Posted in Leadership, Pastoral ministry, Preaching | Tagged | Leave a comment