Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith
Make sure you read to the end of Nick Hawkes amazing life story. Worth it
I never intended to be a Christian. An Atlantic storm and a gang of Chinese heroin addicts are to blame … and this is my story.
I had the good fortune to be born a twin. My brother, Tim, was born one month early. I was content to stay to full term but was un-ceremonially hooked out into the world seven hours later. And, so, I was provided with a lifelong soulmate, competitor, fellow adventurer, role model and encourager.
My father was an Anglican priest from the high church tradition. I can never remember him speaking about his faith or exhibiting any particular fondness for it. For him, faith was “duty.”
Mum was a Sydney North Shore girl. She’d been a journalist and a budding actress – so came down to earth with a bit of a bump when she married an impecunious curate from rural South Australia. She was a closet atheist, or Deist at best … who faithfully did her duty by Dad. Mum was pretty, fun and witty.
Dad became a chaplain in the Australian army, and this began our global wanderings. They started at South Australia’s Woomera rocket range (a great place to collect lizards), then on to Malaya (exotic, strange and slightly dangerous because of the Indonesian confrontation). We learned a bit about military life, smuggling (cans suspended below floating coconuts), Malayan fishing traps (fascinating places to be at night), disturbing Indian religious festivals, discordant Chinese street theatres and flooded rice fields (great places for catching tropical fish).
This slightly odd education came to an abrupt end when my father transferred to the British army. At the age of 12, my brother and I were packed off to an English boarding school.
The boarding school made up in antiquity what it lacked in academic rigour … and the school was the second-oldest school in Britain (founded in 604)! It did, however, offer sport. My brother and I excelled at it and competed fiercely. The same could not be said of our academic pursuits. We turned this into an art form of mediocrity. Neither of us learned to think until we left school.
When we were about 15 years old, a young physics teacher joined the faculty. He was socially awkward, had a high voice, and didn’t play rugby – which instantly relegated him to subhuman status.
I was therefore shocked to learn that this mild-mannered Clark Kent (real name, Tim Millward) sailed small boats in dangerous places. My brother and I had learned to sail while on holidays with my parents when they lived in Germany, so I volunteered the two of us to be his crew on his next voyage.
And so it was that we planned to sail an open sailing dinghy around the south west coast of England. For those who have not watched Poldark, let me tell you that the coastline is characterised by unforgiving cliffs.
We sailed down the River Severn, pushed the boat over a weir at night, negotiated quicksands when walking beside the boat in the shallows … and sailed out to sea.
You’d be forgiven for being mildly curious about how three young men could sleep while sailing a small dinghy. Two people could sleep either side of the centre board casing in sleeping bags protected by a waterproof cover. This left one person sailing the boat. If things got hairy, he’d just kick one of the sleepers awake to give him a hand. On some occasions, we ran the boat up a beach for the night. Tim the teacher had designed a tent that fitted over the boom. Three of us could sleep underneath it because we rigged a bamboo hammock (made of garden stakes), which hung a few centimetres above the noses of those underneath.
Perhaps it was this brush with death … that prompted us to ask Tim what the big deal was about God.
Unsurprisingly, a few dramas occurred. One in particular was to prove significant.
I’d not learned much about God at school, despite having to attend school chapel almost every day. Our chapel was actually Rochester Cathedral but its grandeur did nothing to commend God to me. The cathedral did, however, prove to be a terrific playground. There are hidden staircases in the towers, and we once played a game of cricket on top of the ceiling, under the roof of the northern transept.
My brother and I were therefore bemused when teacher Tim (the nerd) read from a pocket Bible each morning. You can’t exactly miss it when three of you are living on a dinghy.
Things came to a head when we sailed into the Cornish fishing port of St Ives early one morning after sailing all night.
We ate breakfast on dry land and pushed back out to sea. We rounded the headland and sailed slap-bang into heavy weather. The boat got swamped, the granite cliffs got closer, and some of the gear broke. Eventually, we managed to limp back to port … but it had been a close-run thing.
Perhaps it was this brush with death – plus Tim’s Bible reading habit – that prompted my brother and me to ask Tim what the big deal was about God.
With very few words, Tim shared the love story of a God who took the blame for our sins on a cross, sins which would otherwise disbar us from God’s presence. It was a story that reached my heart and warmed my soul, but I was not yet ready to become a Christian.
… He told me that he’d made the same decision three days earlier.
After the voyage ended at Lymington, my brother and I stayed on as sailing instructors at a Christian schools camp. There, we both learned more about the gospel – and I had to make a decision. I found it extraordinary meeting Christians who were excited about their faith. This was palpably not the boring, irrelevant Christianity I’d grown up with.
So, I went for a quiet walk in England’s ancient New Forest, and committed my life to God.
I was then faced with my next challenge – to tell my twin brother.
When I did, he told me that he’d made the same decision three days earlier.
The Walled City
My parents moved to Hong Kong with the army and lived in a unit with fabulous views over the beach and the Pacific. Tim (the brother) and I joined them one long summer holiday. We’d been Christians for one year, and we both knew that something was missing in our faith. We weren’t seeing those things that we read about in the New Testament. So we both prayed.
A stranger on the train taking Tim to Heathrow Airport gave him the name of a missionary in Hong Kong, Jackie Pullinger. When we arrived in Hong Kong, one of the British officers attending dad’s church said he knew Jackie and told us how to find her. So we did.
… Turned out that the “brothers” were members of the 14K triad society and that most were heroin addicts.
We met her at a prayer and worship night being held in the house of a deputy headmaster. Jackie met us at the door and startled us by saying that she’d been praying for us. Evidently, she needed two physically fit Christians to accompany her, a few other Christians, and some “brothers” to a summer camp on the top of Lamma Island a few miles offshore.
We agreed straight away.
It turned out that the “brothers” were members of the 14K triad society and that most were heroin addicts. They had come on the camp to plan an ambush of a rival triad gang. Fortunately, their plans came unstuck when the key leaders committed their lives to Christ. Tim and I were baptised with them off a beach.
There on the island, Tim and I learned about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and we both became baptised by God’s Spirit. I could pray in tongues and discovered a new power in my evangelism.
On many evenings, we worked in Hong Kong’s “City of Darkness” – also known as “The Walled City” – with Jackie.
It was an area that was largely beyond the law as it had been left out of the 99-year lease of Hong Kong to the British. The Walled City was a maze of dense buildings and alley tunnels that gave access to drug dens, sweat shops, brothels and somewhat bizarrely, illegal dentists.
We leaned heavily on the Holy Spirit’s enabling in those times.
From scientist to pastor
I returned to England to do a biology degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic. During the first term, I shared the gospel with a girl on my course, Mary … and married her four years later.
Whilst at Portsmouth, I flew planes with Southampton University Air Squadron, sailed a few boats, and became president of the Christian Union. The CU was exploding in size at the time because of the charismatic renewal. It was a wild ride!
Somehow, I got a degree and went on to become an agricultural research scientist – working mostly in East Anglia. I then secured a similar job with the same company in Australia.
After a brief sojourn in the Mid Murray mallee, I was moved to Adelaide.
Mary and I attended a Uniting Church and were almost immediately asked to start a youth group. We hadn’t a clue what we were doing, but we did. We began with seven people … and it grew to 110.
God dumped a mini-revival on us!
So I decided to stop being a scientist and train as a pastor. Sadly, this brought me face to face with the deadening hand of liberal revisionism that is killing the mainline churches in the West.
Growing a church in such a spiritually destitute culture was both hard and heartbreaking, so after 13 years, we resigned from the Uniting Church and planted a new church, “Rivergate Christian Community” which was affiliated with the Crosslink Network.
The dyslexic writer
God picks the most unlikely people to do his work. I am slightly dyslexic and have always struggled with spelling. This made life difficult at school. But after I left school, I managed to get two degrees in science and two in theology. My spelling, however, was still not great. The relevance of this is that God has called me to be a writer. It wasn’t an easy path to tread, largely because I didn’t particularly want to be one. I wanted to grow churches. It was what I was used to doing.
But Rivergate didn’t grow. What was wrong? I took to walking the tracks around Morialta Conservation Park in Adelaide, in tears. I would pour my heart out to God. Was I the problem? I was just days away from resigning as pastor when a prophet picked me out of a crowd of 200 church leaders and told me that my ministry would be making complex academic things simple for people to understand.
It turned out that I was actually already starting to do the ministry God was calling me into. I was writing and recording for Christian radio (about 800 “Thoughts for the Day”). And some of my books were being translated into Hindi to resource church planters in India.
Being a scientist, I also wrote books about the scientific credibility of Christianity.
Just for good measure, I wrote novels. I wanted to write the sort of books I love to read; books that feed the heart, mind and soul (adventure, romance and mystery, with a garnish of spirituality). And so the Stone Collection of novels was born.
Now here’s the thing: If God can do such things for me, he most certainly can do them for you.
The last four years I have battled the disease have been the most joyful, peaceful, miraculous and productive of my life.
Cancer – the best years
I have cancer. It is throughout my body. There is nothing special about that. Almost half of us will die of the disease. What is special is that I can say: the last four years I have battled the disease have been the most joyful, peaceful, miraculous and productive of my life.
As a result of cancer, I love God more deeply, cry more readily, think more deeply, empathise more profoundly and am focussed more intently on God’s mission – on the need to finish my mission.
And ridiculous things happen. As I write this, my energy is not great. I tend to do things in one-hour bursts. But somehow, this year I’ve written three books and a bunch of daily devotions for the Bible Society.
That’s the difference the Holy Spirit makes.
I’ve shared my story, and I look forward to hearing your story … when we are finally home.