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 or

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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

Recommended reading (30 July)

readingFirst there was road rage and now there’s internet rage. Does “gentle” describe your tone when disagreeing online?

For the dissatisfied pastor/teacher. No platform high enough

If your pastor seems discouraged. One simple way to encourage your pastor

Liberating us to become more hospitable. The point of hospitality

When your best friend is struggling with depression. Serving your spouse during their dark sessions

We all know someone. What to say to a friend with cancer

Posted in Recommended Reading | Leave a comment

How to walk into church

hwic_265It’s important to be able to do things on autopilot. Can you imagine having to think through every step to riding a bicycle every time you got on? Or opening your users manual every time you wanted to watch TV?

However, sometimes, autopilot can be a problem. We visited our premature daughter at the hospital every day for over 3 months until she was able to come home. Many times after that day, I’d get in the car, and be almost at the hospital before I realised that I should have been going in the opposite direction.

I suspect that going to church is an autopilot experience for most Christians. Sunday comes around and we get up, head to church, sit in the same place, and do what we always do. Interestingly, the Bible teaches us that we shouldn’t head to church on autopilot. We should turn autopilot off and engage manual. Hebrews 10:24-25 teaches us:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We are encouraged to meet together regularly so as to encourage and spur one another on in our Christian lives. I take this as encouragement to make church a regular and important priority. We are also urged to ‘consider’ how me do this, which I take as call to disengage autopilot. We are to think about why we go to church, what we will do when we are there, who will be there, how we might encourage them, and more.

Tony Payne’s brief book, How to Walk into Church is written to encourage us to switch off the autopilot and think how we can make our time at church amongst the most valuable activity we engage in each week. He writes:

We come not to spectate or consume, nor even to have our own personal encounter with God. We come to love and to serve.(p13)

This little book is firmly grounded in Hebrews chapters 10 to 12. We are introduced to the heavenly gathering called church and move to the implications of belonging to this church for how me spend our time together with other Christians in our local churches. Our churches are to be shaped by love, and this only happens as we make God and one another the purpose of our gathering. We meet to love, which means we meet so as to build one another by the truth of God’s word. Tony suggests that every time we walk into church we should be wearing a metaphorical t-shirt that says:

“God is important to me, and you are important to me”. And on the back it says, “And that’s why I wouldn’t dream of missing this.” (p37)

How to Walk into Church contains helpful suggestions for promoting ‘every member’ ministry. You don’t need to be the preacher, the Bible reader, or the song leader to be able to influence others. We can all strike up conversations shaped by the Word of God. We can look out for one another, notice who’s missing, and show hospitality to newcomers. If church has become a passive experience, then this book will help you to turn things back toward active engagement every week.

This brief book is one that I plan to use as a tool in our ministry. Our church has already purchased a box of these books and we are promoting them to our regulars. My hope is that the book can also become part of a membership toolkit. When people indicate that they’re keen to belong to our church, then we will talk through how they can contribute to the ministry. We may well give them this book, urging them to read it, jot down some notes and questions, and we’ll talk about it together. I will be recommending this book to churches, small groups, and individuals.

There are many strengths of this book, not least is that it’s only 64 pages and takes 30 minutes to read. Yet more importantly is that it is derived clearly from the Scriptures. Some books about ‘what to do in church’ simply springboard from the Bible into the pool of pragmatism.

Having read over this book a couple of times, there are improvements that I think could be made in a second edition. It’s a good book that could be even better. I’d like to be able to offer this book to anyone who comes to our church—whether they are Christian or not. Thus, I think the book would benefit by a clearer explanation of how to become part of the heavenly church, the church belonging to Jesus. While this point is made, a few pages completely devoted to the message of the gospel would strengthen its impact.
I’d also like to read more practical ideas for ministry at church. Perhaps in between chapters we could read some cameos of people in their service at church. Alternatively, each chapter could finish with some dot points of ideas, or even a section for personal reflection and prayer for the reader to map out some ideas for service.

I had an opportunity to raise these suggestions with the author at a recent conference and he was most receptive. I sensed that his desire is to serve the church by listening as well as by writing.

This review was written for The Gospel Coalition Australia

Posted in Books, Pastoral ministry | 3 Comments