Monday, August 1, 2011
Basic Christianity, in fact, was a little more accessible to me as a twenty-something than Mere Christianity. Both C. S. Lewis and John R. W. Stott were Brits, and in their utilization of the English language left their American counterparts well behind. Stott, perhaps more than Lewis, went directly do the point. In those early, impressionable years, both influenced me deeply.
As a youngster, Stott aspired to be a diplomat. Lewis, a literary critic. Both of them converted to Christianity as unlikely candidates. Both had been thoroughgoing skeptics. But they became convinced, and opened their hearts. The rest is history.
While Stott’s attempt to summarize the Christian faith for a disbelieving audience (Basic Christianity – first published in 1958) didn’t sell quite as well as Lewis’ (Mere Christianity – first published in 1952), it sold 2.5 million copies and has been translated into 50 languages. Royalties from the sales of the book did not enrich Stott who, as everyone who knew him would affirm, lived simply. His favorite pastime – bird watching. The proceeds from the brisk sales of the book were poured directly into a non-profit organization (or better, organisation) he called Langham Partnership International – designed to provide theological education and encouragement to international church leaders with little access to either.
News of Dr. Stott’s passing just this week released a flood of memories. He was, without reservation, one of my favorite seminary professors. All three years, he was professor in residence the third quarter. One year, we lived in the same apartment building on campus. (Occasionally, his discarded tea leaves would clog the drains.) I realize now that between lectures that year, he was working on the Lausanne Covenant which in 1974 became the basic document binding together a global association of evangelicals. He and Billy Graham convened that conference which drew more than twenty-five hundred leaders from over one hundred countries. This week, Christianity Today said, “Stott’s skill as a diplomat was never more in evidence, as he chaired potentially fractious meetings, getting people to listen to each others’ views. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to draft and redraft the covenant, finding wording that would capture various points of view without doing violence to any… Lausanne was a defining moment in global evangelicalism. Billy Graham was the indispensable convener, but John Stott was the indispensable uniter.”
Dr. Stott combined all the best qualities of a scholar, theologian, pastor and professor. He explained things. He read widely. He knew the philosophers and the influencers. He demonstrated an understanding of the issues with which we grappled. His sermons/lectures would begin with a statement of the problem – usually controversial. He did not address solutions or responses until he exposed the challenge. Sometimes his analysis was so convincing, so precise, we wondered how we might ever find our way out. Then he would proceed to apply biblical insight and the fog would clear. He modeled a faith that investigated fully – listening intently, reading broadly, assessing deeply – to interact with concerns of the day. He saw no distinction between evangelism and social action. They were one in the same. He did not envision theocracy as the goal of this life. “That Kingdom is yet to come,” he would say. The gospel is not something we impose on the world, we invite. Stott prepared thoroughly. He reasoned carefully. He disagreed gently. He taught us to do the same.
I knew him as a professor, and as a neighbor. Then I witnessed his role as pastor of a congregation of some twenty-thousand collegians when he led us to the Communion Table in the great conference hall at the University of Illinois (Urbana 1981). He raised a loaf of bread, and broke it. He drew us to the table of mercy and grace, forgiveness and hope. I’ll never forget it.
Carolyn and I were on the hunt for Charles Dicken’s Museum in London in 1994 (our twenty-fifth anniversary trip). We rode the London Double Decker through the city and by no advanced planning, stumbled across All Soul’s Church. We saw the name on the map, jumped off the bus and walked to the domed worship center, wondering – could this be the place? The marquis identified John R. W. Stott as rector, and announced that he would be speaking the following morning (Sunday). After visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, we just assumed it would be another ecclesiastical museum, long on history, short on worshippers. We thought we would “pad” the audience for our old friend.
We arrived promptly at eleven the next morning. But there were no seats left. Every spot, including all those in the balcony, were taken. Crowds waited in the lobby. We were ushered to the front and invited to take our place on the floor. Dr. Stott preached that morning, as promised. We enjoyed an unforgettable conversation afterwards, reminiscing over the Trinity years.
In 2005, Time Magazine listed Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In his response, Billy Graham stated that Stott’s work is foundational to the explosive growth of the church in the developing world.
It saddens me today to think of the loss. His family was by his side. They all listened to Handel’s Messiah as Dr. Stott breathed his last. His legacy lives in the hearts and minds of everyone who knew him, everyone who read any of his fifty books, all of us who aspire to be ministers of reconciliation.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011