PriscillaBack in 2000 I commenced as a Prison Chaplain at our local prison, a bit raw and apprehensive in a strange new environment. This was at the old jail which was basically a load of cage-like open yards, each enclosing a lawn area surround by the inmates’ units. The yards were in turn arranged around a large open area containing the admin blocks. The chaplain’s office opened onto the open area.

One morning, only about a month after I started, I got word that a young guy wanted to attend our Bible study that afternoon, so I decided to go down to his yard and check him out. When I got there the guy who came to meet me was a young aboriginal guy, very effeminate, could have been a black version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I invited him up and went back to lunch and then awaited the afternoon study.

After five or six guys had arrived and were making a coffee (in those days we enjoyed such freedoms) I stepped out of the office to see where our new attendee was, only to be confronted with the spectacle of him coming across the open area accompanied by wolf-whistles and jeers from the surrounding yards. About ten metres from the office he whisked off his outer shorts and, waving them about his head like Priscilla herself, minced into the office. I shut the door and thought to myself, “This is going be interesting.”

Fortunately the guys already there where a bit maturer and welcomed him, making him a coffee. Then the question came.

“What does God think of gays?”

To which I replied, “It’s not a matter of being gay or straight. It’s a matter of whether you have a relationship with the God who gave you life.”

And that to me is the bottom line. There is a God whose first thought toward us is one of love, not one of rejection and judgement. “For God so LOVED the world that he gave …. (John 3:16). There is a creator who loves and then gives, so that He can enjoy us forever. For sure that relationship is on His terms. We need in response to drop our rather life-less independence and to get to know Him, learn to love both Him and His ways. But from His side there is nothing standing in the way.

He longs for relationship. He longs to bring Priscilla out of her desert … and give him a life.


As an Australian Christian it almost seems un-Australian to not appreciate Hillsong and the wealth of inspiring and God-glorifying music that they have given us over the years. Given indeed to the world. I am just returning home to Oz from the Philippines where, on one Sunday night, I endured a three hour concert where 4 invited worship teams seemed to compete with each other in replicating as much Hillsong as they could manage, complete with the same stage and audience mannerisms that make up the usual Hillsong DVD. I don’t blame the guys back in Sydney for that, but it does leave me with concerns and questions about the nature of modern Christian ‘worship’. How much of it is true worship and when does it just become soulish hype. And a pleasant experience on the plane on the way to Manila only served to heighten my concern.

I’m a great Sting fan. I love his music style and his skill with lyrics. So how great was my joy to find his Berlin Concert, complete with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of the Qantas in-flight entertainment. It was a fabulous concert, filling up my senses and having me at times in tears. I watched it twice and told my wife that I’d love it for Christmas. But here’s the concern. A month earlier I had been into our local prison to facilitate the Sunday services and the lads in the first session had the latest Hillsong DVD which we used for a couple of songs. I’d not seen a Hillsong production for a while and so I was suitably impressed with the whole production, the smoky blue effects, the crowd angles, the music style, so professional, so drawing. I enjoyed it, worshipped to it and thought of some teenagers I’d love to get it for.

Have you already got my drift though? I don’t have any doubt at all about the integrity of the producers of the video BUT … when you put together a team of amazing musicians, skilful writers and a brilliant audio and visual team you have to finish up with a successful product that has all the dangers of leavings its participants emotionally high but not necessarily engaged with God in a life changing encounter that continues after the lights have faded. Especially when churches all over the country see Hillsong as the benchmark and are trying to replicate their style, all in the name of a spirit of ‘excellence’. So the push for talent in the worship team becomes a subtle mini version of Australian Idol and the expectations of an entertainment-driven generation of young churchgoers are catered for and driven higher. And we confuse the results for worship that pleases God.

And here I am reminded of David trying to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), on a ‘new cart’ (driven by the spirit of excellence?) replete with a plethora of professional musicians and skillful music that would surely rival heaven – but God was not in it. Indeed it was not until this new thing stumbled and God’s wrath burned against Uzzah for trying to keep it going, that the participants, as earnest as they surely were, were even remotely aware that their ’worship’ fell far short of God’s measure of excellence.

What was missing was the blood (verse 16). God’s presence is not brought down by highly skilled (and sometimes unknowingly ego-driven) musicians and polished performances but is carried each day by New Testament priests (ordinary believers) who are dead to performance driven religion and who’s worship is more about service than singing. Such worshippers do not need a professional song-leading team every Sunday and are quite satisfied with a poorer but sometimes more honest worship session when they do get it. Indeed such a genuine mixture of sacrificial service and heartfelt singing makes a big noise in heaven whether it is accompanied by excellence or not.

So will it be Sting or Hillsong at Christmas? Hopefully both. I’ve no doubt that God raised Hillsong for His purposes. And just as David “served the purposes of God in his generation” so I trust will they. May they do it though through a pathway of blood.


Rev Phil badgeWhen I first began as a Prison Fellowship chaplain out at Capricornia Correctional Centre I was issued with a name badge, reading Rev Phil Walters. Being a bit embarrassed by the ‘Rev’ tag – I was neither officially nor in character ‘Reverend’ – I covered it up and ordered a new badge, more appropriately reading ‘Pastor’ Phil Walters. However, having mislaid that badge, I now need to order a new one. Which brings me to a slight dilemma. Because I have come to a stage, with all my recent questionings of modern church practice, where I’m not comfortable with any titles, be they Pope or Pastor.

I must say that I have never really been comfortable being called ‘Pastor’. Perhaps it is because I’ve always struggled with the clergy/laity thing, which is an awful division that developed in the church very early on, creating a false old-covenant style division between the professional ordained elite and all the rest. A hierarchical model of leadership which is foreign to the New Testament.

Jesus made it clear that we are not to get hung up on titles. Surely this was his intention when he said

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. Matthew 23:810

I suspect that he knew very well our propensity to exchange the lower-case ‘function’ for an upper-case ‘office’ complete with title. So that someone who pastors become Pastor Someone. Then Senior Pastor Someone. Or Associate Pastor or Youth Pastor or Worship Pastor etc etc. The church is full of it. Apostle This, Bishop That, Most Reverend The  Other.

Where is such use of titles in the New Testament? Did Apostle Paul write to the Corinthians and tell them he was sending Pastor Timothy and Youth Pastor Titus to catch up with Senior Pastor Aquilla and Associate Pastor Priscilla? It’s a nonsense. And it perpetuates an unhealthy divide. Nowhere in the New Testament are people addressed by their functions in that kind of a way.

Of course the excuse we make is that it is a way of ‘honouring’ our leaders. But if we need a title in order to be honoured surely something is wrong. Should I not be honoured for what I am regardless of title? My son-in-law is a much respected and sort after plumber but we don’t need to call him Plumber Dennis. Why should he not be ‘honoured’ in similar vein to how we ‘honour’ pastors? Is his profession less honourable?

Pastor Only Parking2On the contrary I can hide behind a title, use it as a smoke screen to hide my insecurities or the flaws in my character, even pull the old ” Do not speak against the Man of God” thing.

No, no. The people I serve, in whatever function I have been called, are my friends and my fellow companions in the work of the Kingdom. This was Paul’s attitude to those around him and it should be mine. They knew him simply as Paul (or at the most ‘brother Paul’, a term he uses for Peter as well) and so I should be known simple as Phil.

So goodbye ‘Pastor’ Phil. And hello Phil, a pastor … and a father, husband, lover,  prison chaplain, events person, radio presenter, blogger, brother in Christ and friend of all, etc etc.

(Thank you Jon Zens for the photo, from his latest book A Church Building Every Half Mile)


This is so good that that I need to post it. It’s by Ron Nickel the President of Prison Fellowship International.

            “When exactly did you give your heart to the Lord?”

            His question hung suspended between us like a frozen pendulum; I hesitated, wondering how best to reply.  If he had asked me how long I have believed in the Lord, I could have told him that I have always believed – for as long as I can remember I have more or less believed.  Of course there was a period of time during my studies at the university when I talked and lived like an agnostic, but deep down I still believed.  I was born into a family of believers, and was raised believing, in much the same way as I was raised Canadian.  It is who I am.

            The question of heart is a much more difficult question for me than the question of belief.  I have always been a Canadian and have never had to make a decision to accept being or becoming Canadian, because I was born one.  However, I have friends who, as immigrants from other countries, made deliberate decisions to relinquish the citizenship of their birth and become naturalized Canadian citizens.  But I have never been tempted to become a citizen of another country; and I have never seriously considered being anything other than a Christian believer, even though I’ve been criticized for being closed minded, unscientific, and archaic.

            Believing in Christ is not only where I come from, I just don’t see any better alternatives – especially when I view the world through the bars of a prison cell.  Unbelief has nothing to offer when human dignity is denied, decency destroyed, and depravity celebrated.  There is no way out of such human degradation and guilt, and alternative beliefs fall short of the unmerited grace, forgiveness, and love by which God triumphs over evil. 

            So, yes, I believe

            When, exactly, did I give my heart to the Lord though?  I struggle with this question all the time.  To me “heart” implies something infinitely deeper than thoughts or beliefs or even feelings and inclinations.  When we speak of “the heart of a matter” we refer to its real essence, its core, and its very centre.  The heart of a person is that most vital organ which keeps blood, life itself, flowing to every fibre of his or her being.  Without a heart, life ceases.  When a heart is diseased, life suffers.  Giving my heart to Jesus implies that I am not just turning my thoughts toward Him; I am turning my core reality over to Him – to let my heart and life be infused with His.  That isn’t just a matter of the mind, or of believing.

            For me, every day involves the struggle of yielding my heart to the Lord.  It is not a once-and-for-all, done deal, like a decision I made to buy an insurance policy.  Of course it began with believing, but it continues day-by-day in allowing my heart to flow with the essence of Jesus’ life.

There is an image that I find both compelling and disturbing, an icon depicting the “Sacred Heart of Jesus.”  The icon shows Jesus with wounded hands exposing his pierced heart, a bleeding heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, a heart aflame with fire.  The heart aflame represents the essence of his life – that passionate love by which he willingly laid aside His own interests and prerogatives for the sake of giving life to the vilest of scoundrels and sinners.  When I meditate on the message of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” I know that far too much of my heart still belongs to me and that as much as I believe in Him, I am still in the painful process of giving my heart to Him – of turning away from selfishness and pride and turning with love and mercy toward others.

Lord our God

Grant us the grace to desire you with our whole heart

That so desiring, we may seek and find you;

And so finding you we may love you

And loving you we may hate those sins

From which you have redeemed us.

— St. Anselm of

Conversatio Morum is brought to you weekly by Prison Fellowship International Ron Nikkel is the president of Prison Fellowship International  To comment on or subscribe to Conversatio Morum, e-mail  © 2007 by Prison Fellowship International

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Reprints permitted with acknowledgement


I’ve just been reading a discussion on the House2House forum re modes of baptism. Some well formed arguments on both sides – but I’ve come to wonder lately whether the ‘right’ mode is really the ‘right’ issue. And here’s why.

As you know, I’m a chaplain in our local prison and for logistical reasons we are not allowed to have full immersion (my preference) baptisms. So, rather than ask guys to wait untilthey get out, we’ve made a compromise acceptable to all the other chaplains and, I believe, to the Holy Spirit.We use a kiddies pool with about six inches of water in it and a couple of buckets. While we pray over the guy being baptised a couple of fellow inmates slowly pour water over him until he is well and truly drenched. And well and truly blessed as well. God’s presence is there every time and the testimonies that follow are exciting.

One prisoner later testified that he feared that he would not have the sense of death and burial normally associated with immersion. However as the water poured over him he felt that he was being washed of all his sins. Then when he stood up he found himself under the air-conditioning and he was so cold he felt he was in the grave. When he then stepped back into the chapel office and got changed he had the experience of taking off the old and being clothed in the new. He came out of the office with perhaps a fuller experience of death and resurrection than he might have had in a more ‘proper’ baptism.

Trouble is that I am enjoying this mode of baptising so much I may find immersion a bit tame in comparison. We shall see. I have a river baptism this Sunday. Maybe I can merge both styles in together. Certainly I’m starting to think that the Holy Spirit does not quibble about these things half as much as we do.

Every Friday is a Good Friday

I was invited by a free news magazine to submit an Easter message to be included with the rest of the local clergy in the Easter edition. 150 words max. What can you say in 150 words? Here’s my contribution. It fits in well with my last blog post.

“Good Friday. For most people it comes around once a year. But for me every Friday is a Good Friday. Because I’m a Prison Chaplain and Friday is the day I’m privileged to go inside and spend a day with some guys who have become pretty special. Men who have hit the bottom, tried to get up by their own strength, given up and fallen back – into the arms of Jesus. 

Not that they expected Him to be in there really … but where else would you expect to find Him? When He was on earth Jesus declared that he had come to set the prisoner free and, on that first Good Friday, one of those prisoners took him up on the offer. A dying thief, who had run out of hope and whose time for amending his ways had also run out, met Jesus. Not looking up at him from a safe place but there, right beside him, on a cross, sharing his guilt and his pain. 

And each Friday I see the same scene worked out. That’s why every Friday for me is a Good one.”

An Army of Ordinary People

prison-trolleys.jpgI’ve just got back today from my annual government-paid trip to Brisbane for the Queensland Prison Chaplains’ In-Service Training. I’m tired from listening and heavy from eating but inspired to go in to the prison for another year. And blessed to have mixed for a few days with a small army (about 100 of us) of very ordinary people, regarded by some in the prison as just one rung up from the guys wearing brown, but dedicated and inspired by even the smallest ray of hope in an inmates eyes.

And what’s so bad about brown? It’s the colour of the earth, the dirt that is trodden but which God once gathered into a heap and breathed life into – a man in His own image, a work that has not finished but is daily reproduced in our prisons.

There’s a great thing happening in our prisons. Most people have no knowledge of it. God is raising men and women from the refuse heap and preparing them to be released into our society as true servant leaders. They probabably won’t feel comfortable in our churches or our lounge rooms though so God may have to do some work on the church before we can benefit from the life they will release among us.

I thank God for taking me into prison each week. And I thank God for the ordinary people that go in with me.