John Stott died this week. He was 90.
Stott was sometimes called “the evangelical pope.” He was a man of wisdom, depth, clarity, warmth, and massive influence. He radiated love for Christ and his church. Though he spent most his years as pastor of All Souls Church in London, he was truly a global Christian, giving the royalties from his many books to support scholars and evangelists in the developing world. Though a lifelong Anglican, he declined the opportunity to become a bishop because he wanted to remain available to the wider church, among whom he was affectionately known as “Uncle John.”
His death prompted a deluge of tributes from all corners of the church and globe, and even from non-Christians.
Saddleback Church?s Pastor Rick Warren simply declared him “a giant.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said of him, “During a long life of unsparing service and witness, John won a unique place in the hearts of all who encountered him. Without ever compromising his firm evangelical faith, he showed himself willing to challenge some of the ways in which that faith had become conventional or inward-looking. It is not too much to say that he helped to change the face of evangelicalism internationally, arguing for the necessity of ?holistic? mission that applied the Gospel of Jesus to every area of life. But he will be remembered most warmly as an expositor of scripture and a teacher of the faith, whose depth and simplicity brought doctrine alive in all sorts of new ways.”
The Rev. S. Douglas Birdsall, executive chair of the Lausanne Conference, which Stott co-founded with Billy Graham, remarked that “John Stott?s focus was the cross. The church was his great love. World evangelization was his passion. Scripture was his authority. Heaven was his hope. Now it is his home.”
Maybe it was David Brooks, a Jewish columnist for the New York Times, who captured him best. In an op-ed piece a few years ago, Brooks lamented the tendency of the media to find the most outlandish and offensive evangelical Christians and to make them representatives of the movement. He then pointed to Stott as evangelical Christianity?s real spokesman, describing him as “friendly, courteous and natural” whose faith was “humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic,” and praising him for his “thoughtful allegiance to scripture.”
And that from someone outside the Christian faith.
Personally, Stott mentored me through his books, especially his Magnus Opus, The Cross of Christ. The man possessed the rare combination of first-rate scholarship, lucid and compelling prose, and godly pastoral wisdom. He could parse Greek phrases with rigor and precision, and argue fine points of doctrine with agility and exactitude, but he never lost sight of the biblical imperative to live the truth, not just to know it. His genius, indeed, was application: How then shall we live? Truth that does not work its way into our hearts, our tongues, our eyes, our feet, our hands, was dead.
But truth that takes hold of us and leads us into intimacy with Jesus, obedience to him, and Kingdom work for him and with him ? that is living. Stott had a living faith. Though he is gone, his influence will live on for many years ? indeed, I believe it will grow.
And of course, he?s doing just fine.
Billy Graham said on Wednesday, “The evangelical world has lost one of its greatest spokesmen, and I have lost one of my close personal friends and advisers. I look forward to seeing him again when I go to heaven.”
I write this in a seaside house on a small island. The house is light-soaked and quiet. It has sprawling cedar decks built to the edge of rocky shoals, and a large dock whose ramp teeters down to it as you walk out on it, a gang-plank-cum-see-saw. Almost every window frames a piece of sea and sky. In the mornings I sit in a window alcove, a fleece blanket draped over my shoulders against the morning chill, and pull things in close with binoculars. Our week here is a gift from good friends, who own the house, and who are themselves sleeping in an Atco trailer down the road to make room for us. My guilt about that is easily assuaged by the pleasure I take in everything: sunlight falling slantwise through windows, sailboats cutting white wakes in dark water, the smell of coffee, the sound of water on rock, the gray sleekness of the heron that perches daily at the dock’s edge, patient and watchful and quick as lightning when it counts.
Last week, I was on the same island, a few kilometres down the road, and busy. Cheryl and I were speakers at Barnabas Family camp. It was a work week: 14 speaking sessions in 6 days. 5 of the sessions were almost 2 hours each. In between, individuals or couples wanted to meet with us, some just to spend time, others seeking counsel or prayer. It was the kind of week that normally exhausts me. I usually return from an assignment like that spent, brittle, slightly jaded.
But this was different. Barnabas is a place of shalom, and even in giving I found myself refreshed. I kept thinking of a line from The Lord of the Rings, describing Rivendell:
Such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.
Such was the virtue of the land.
Part of the magic spell Barnabas casts is through its remarkable staff. The place is mostly run by 20 or so 20-somethings, a clutch of young adults under the steady but unobtrusive guidance of a few older adults. I have never seen anything quite like it: the combination of youthful energy, outsized giftedness, joyful servanthood, and humble leadership. They are on duty morning till night, over a wide range of activities from cleaning and cooking and childcare to music and drama and teaching, and never seem to lose an inch of patience, creativity or enthusiasm. They are prayerful, playful, generous, polite, and astonishingly talented. They don’t appear to carry an ounce of entitlement. More than anything, they brim with gratitude for the opportunity. If this represents the future of the church – indeed, the future of the world – then we have abundant grounds for both being both thankful and hopeful.
I think it also is a testimony to what the church is doing right. Most of these young people are between 18 and 22. They have confidence without a shadow of arrogance. They truly, deeply love Jesus. They walk in real purity. Every morning, when Cheryl and I had the privilege of sharing briefly with them, they came with wide-open attentiveness and prayed with fervor, faith, and a concern for others that made my own prayers seem tepid, halting, and self-absorbed.
I sat one day at lunch with a table full of them, and asked about their “training.” Everyone was reared in the arms of the church. They learned early and as a matter of course to serve gladly, to cultivate their gifts to the full, and to use whatever they had in time, talent or money for the sake of God’s Kingdom. The church, without even really trying, had groomed them for true greatness. The gifts needed to lead well – a deep but humble confidence, a calmness in crisis, an ability to inspire and direct, a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort, a depth of perseverance, a clear eye on the big idea, an attention to details, and, always, courage – they have in spades. I doubt their non-Christian friends have anything even close to this.
There is perhaps much to lament about the modern church. But I just spent the week with 20 or so 20-somethings that reminded me, as Bill Hybels loves to say, that “the local church is the hope of the world.”
Holidays prove a hunch: the world runs fine without us. Our absence is at most a minor glitch in the steady functioning of the organization, a tiny spasm in the smooth ordering of society. It’s not even a hiccup in the rhythms of planetary motions. Things happen, and well, without our hovering and meddling presence. The world does not malfunction if we’re not there to tinker with it. Progress is made without us having to express an opinion.
Most of us get – and need – a yearly post-it-note from the universe: go fishing – we’ll figure it out without you. It’s called a vacation: we vacate, and find that the sun still rises and sets, the tides ebb and flow, and airplanes still rarely get off the gate on schedule.
This is humbling.
And it’s liberating. God never recruited Atlas. He doesn’t need anyone to carry the world on his shoulders. He does this fine all on his own.
Which is such good news. It’s good news because it relieves us the burden of managing the universe. Some days I can barely dress myself, so having the extra responsibility of running the universe is a bad idea for all involved.
But it’s good news because it also means our worth in God’s eyes is based on something other than our usefulness. God loves us for reasons other than that we’re clever or hardy. He certainly welcomes our work – working is a large part of how we’re made in his image. But he doesn’t love us for our work. He loves us, and delights in us, and lavishes favour on us, not because we’re useful, but because we’re his. We are his creation, the work of his hands. And in Christ, we are new creations, trophies of his grace.
For a good reason we associate holidays with recreation. The first word derives from holy days, the second literally means to re-create. We need holy days, not just to rest, but to remember who – and whose – we really are.