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.
During 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)