Stuart has been working in IT for 26 years, but his early working years were spent as a mechanic, first on cars and then on motorbikes.
His passion for fixing bikes was reflected in his passion for racing them, but then the death of two good friends and racing buddies in close succession brought this life to a sudden end. One friend, Carry, died in a racing accident in Wellington, and another of Stuart’s mates, John, was asked to identify Carry’s body in hospital. Then, exactly one year to the day later, John was also killed on his bike.
Stuart felt the odds weren’t in his favour on the race track. ‘I haven’t ridden a bike since,’ he says. ‘My sister tells me the light went out of my life that day. But I believe these things do shape you for life. The hard things we go through give us the tools to help others.’
By this time, Stuart had moved from repairing bikes for Callender Suzuki to working in its retail sales. It was the early 1980s and Callender Suzuki was starting to computerise its systems. Stuart sort of fell into IT work during this time, but quickly realised he had an aptitude for it and went on to become IT manager at the Yamaha Distributor Moller Yamaha. (These days he works for USL Medical.)
Yamaha relocated him to their Auckland head office, where Stuart started dating and then married the General Manager’s PA. The couple had three children: Kirsty (who turns 23 this month), Daniel (21 and married) and Nathan (19).
‘When Nathan was around six, his mother’s and my relationship started to deteriorate—we grew apart, really.’ Within a couple more years, their marriage was over.
‘It was hard on me,’ Stuart remembers. ‘The worst thing was coming home to an empty house. You’d put your glasses on the table in the morning, come home and they were unmoved. It was the little things like that—and the big things, too. I really missed the kids, but having said that, I think we split up for the kids, because it would have become too toxic for them if we’d stayed together.’
Initially, all the children came to their dad every second week. Stuart was careful not to say anything derogatory to them about their mother and instead focused on being the best father he could be. ‘I learnt that there are no hard-and-fast rules to being a good dad—you just have to look at each child individually.’
After 12 months, Kirsty came to live with her dad permanently. ‘That was terrific!’ he says. ‘Although I told her there was an open-door policy and that she could go back to her mum’s any time.’ Kirsty was obviously happy with the arrangement, though, as she’s only just moved out last year, with one year left at university. ‘She calls me her “Mum-Dad”,’ says Stuart with obvious pride.
‘I’m really lucky that my kids are great and trustworthy,’ he continues. ‘I suppose that’s a testament to how their mother and I brought them up, but I’ve always said to them: “I’ll trust you until you give me a reason not to.” The biggest thing as a parent is to have a relationship with your children—just as we have a relationship with God. And to trust them—just as we trust God.’
To hear Stuart striking a comparison between parenting and friendship with God shows just how different his outlook is on life these days. Because while Stuart grew up attending church, it didn’t have any apparent impact on most of his adult life.
‘I did the normal Sunday school things and learnt a lot about the Bible and Jesus,’ he says. ‘And I went to Boy’s Brigade, which was Christian based. So I knew who God was and who Jesus was, but I didn’t have a relationship with God at that time.’
The major reason for Stuart’s changed attitude toward God and spirituality was his youngest son’s growing relationship with Jesus, after Nathan became involved with The Salvation Army.
Nathan was at high school when two friends, brothers Barry and Paul Kirby, invited him along to youth group and then church at The Salvation Army’s East City Corps (church) in Howick, Auckland. Stuart had no problems with that. In his mind he weighed up all the activities his son could have been involved in, against becoming a churchgoer, and realised he had nothing to worry about.
Then, one day, Nathan told his dad that he’d decided to become a Salvation Army soldier—an ‘enrolled’ member of the church.
‘And I said, “What exactly does that entail?” ’ Stuart recalls. ‘At which point, Nathan told me I needed to meet with his corps officer (pastor) Captain Mat Badger and that he’d explain everything.’ So Stuart and Mat caught up over coffee.
‘Mat asked me what I knew about The Salvation Army and I told him that I thought it was a church that “talked the talk and walked the walk”. Mat then explained the Soldiers’ Covenant that Nathan would be signing to me—that it was about Christian beliefs in Jesus as Saviour, and that it had some rules about not drinking and not taking addictive drugs. It didn’t seem that weird to me.’
As the day of Nathan’s enrolment drew closer, Nathan suggested it might be good if his dad came along one Sunday to see what the Army was like. So, the Sunday before the enrolment ceremony was scheduled, father and son turned up at church together.
‘Something was tugging on my heart right from that service. It was such a neat place to be and the people were so friendly. The next week I was back, and as Nathan read out the promises he was making it brought a tear to my eye. I realised that there had been something missing from my life. People talk about that hole in your heart that only God can fill—and that’s what I was starting to become aware of.’
That was on the 14th of April last year, and Stuart’s been a regular at The Salvation Army ever since, although he describes the early impact of this as something of a ‘rollercoaster ride’ experience.
A few weeks after Nathan’s enrolment, Mat’s wife, Captain Jules Badger, was preaching. What she said really hit home and Stuart asked for more information. Jules gave him some notes that included an explanation about how to become a Christian. ‘So I prayed,’ says Stuart. ‘I said: “I know I’ve sinned. I know I’ve done wrong. But I give myself to God.”
‘I remember going into work the next morning crying my eyes out. Luckily I start early, so there weren’t a lot of people around. I phoned Nathan—who was away at the time—and said, “What’s happening to me?” And he said, “Dad, that’s the Holy Spirit.”
Stuart later found out Nathan had been praying for him to become a Christian for a long time, and Mat had also been praying.
‘There were lots of changes after that. I started to look at people differently and treat them differently. And people noticed the change. I’ve had people say, “There’s something really different about you.” And I say, “You can get this, too.” ’
Stuart describes the change as like an ‘attitude shift’, as his eyes were opened to the value of people. Previously, he says that even though most people would have said he was a good guy, he knew he was often very quick to judge people. Not that he thought there was anything wrong with his judgemental attitude at the time.
‘Working in IT you come across a lot of people who aren’t IT literate, and you tend to look down on them,’ he explains. ‘But now, I look at them and says, “Well, they’re not IT literate, but they have strengths in other areas.” Or I notice people and think, “Wow, they’re really great at customer service!” So I guess my attitude toward people has become a lot softer now that Jesus is part of my life.’
Other things have changed too, he says. ‘I pray all the time now—on the way to work, at work, hanging out the clothes. I pray for anything and about everything.’
Stuart’s an early riser, up at 5 am to get to work by 6:30. His morning routine now consists of reading a passage from the Bible and some related thoughts on his iPad. ‘That used to be my newspaper-reading time, which was a lot of bad news. So now I read the good news in the Bible,’ he says.
He has other new areas of passion in his life now, too. Because he’s had such a great, open relationship with his own children, Stuart is eager to see other young people have good opportunities in life. He’s proud of Nathan’s involvement at East City Salvation Army and very supportive of his son’s work with other young people there to develop a Saturday night church service focused on young people.
Stuart has also become more interested in the issue of human trafficking, after learning about The Salvation Army’s international fight against human trafficking. ‘It breaks my heart to hear stories of people being caught in slavery,’ he says.
Another change is Nathan moving back in with his father, saying he feels more comfortable in a home that Jesus is a part of. ‘And we can talk about so much more now,’ says Stuart, ‘because I understand that whole part of Nathan’s life.’
Stuart recognises that he has a comfortable life: with a good job and all the advantages that come with that. And as a Kiwi bloke in his early 50s, he wasn’t really looking for change, something he thinks other guys can probably relate to. And yet he’s found that coming to believe in and follow Jesus Christ has added a whole new dimension to life that he never could have expected.
‘I brought my kids up with Christian values, and I suppose I could have even just come to church with Nathan and called myself “a Christian”, but I’ve decided to let Jesus in. In fact, I’d say to anyone who’s looking at church and looking at Christ and wondering what all of this is about, you’re never too old to turn to Christ—or to work for him, for that matter.’
Just before Christmas, Stuart took a week off from work to help put together food parcels and Christmas toys for The Salvation Army to distribute to families. ‘I remember one man who’d taken his food but hadn’t realised there were presents for his children. So I drove out to his house and delivered the presents. He was almost in tears—and I was too. Taking that time off and helping out like this; well, it was my best holiday ever!’
Last November, Stuart followed Nathan’s example and signed on as a Salvation Army soldier. As well as helping with the youth team, he also serves on the church’s mission board and helps out with pastoral care.
‘Lately, I’ve been talking and praying about what God might want me to do next. I realise that I have all these material possessions, but I’ve said to God, “I don’t need these—they’re yours.” I do feel that Jesus is directing my life now. In fact, looking back, I can see times when I came to crossroads that could have been so wrong, but I was prevented from going that way. And I believe that was Jesus.’
And while Stuart isn’t sure what direction his future might take, he’s not nervous. ‘It’s like children asking, “Are we there yet?” when they’re going on a trip somewhere new. I know I’m on a great journey now, and I’m looking forward to the ride because I know that God is looking after me. It’s like the song “Rooftops” by Jesus Culture, with the line, “heart wide open”. Well, my heart is wide open now.’
Realising there are still a lot of people who don’t know how great it is to connect with Jesus, Stuart says, ‘People sometimes wonder how anyone can believe in Jesus, but I say, “Jesus is there, so reach out to him and ask him to touch your life.” ’
By Christina Tyson
Stuart had a ‘hole in his heart’ that only God could fill. For more about what it means to invite Jesus into your life, take the next step.