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Posts Tagged ‘Billy Graham’

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

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Laura Hillenbrand titled her new book well.  If anyone should be broken, it would be Louis Zamperini.  At age ninety-four (DOB January 26, 1917), the former athlete then WWII veteran and later pastoral staff member of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church has outlived most all his friends.  The author understood.  It would be difficult to imagine a human being more sorely tested; physically, psychologically and spiritually.  Most anyone else would surely be, well, broken.  His is an extraordinary story of “Survival, Resilience and Redemption.”  He remains to this day – unbroken.

I still remember back when Leslie Green recommended that I get my hands on the new book: Seabiscuit.  Reading ought to be a pleasure, and that’s what I found in Hillenbrand’s work.  Hers was the inspiring story of a racehorse; but it was also a history of the Great Depression.  Meticulously researched, written in an intensely engaging style it delivered rich dividends in the reading.  Leslie pegged it.  I couldn’t put it down.  Then came the movie.

So when Paul Sailhamer told me about Hillenbrand’s newest work, I grabbed my iPhone and ordered the free eBook sample right there at Panera Bread over my breakfast of egg and sausage sandwich.  I checked around the Internet on the ninety-four year old Italian who is Hillenbrand’s subject, and got a sense of why such a skilled author might choose to devote seven full years to chronicling his life.  The sample was the hook, and thanks to this new technology with which I hope never to live without, a couple of clicks later, I downloaded the unabridged audio version for my regular long trips up the Central Valley and back.  Hillenbrand soon had me mesmerized once more, and then sadly, the book came to an end.  I will wait impatiently for her next.

Laura Hillenbrand suffers a debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome.  By her own admission, the crushing condition leaves her in isolation, in a daily battle with depression.  Yet, she researches and writes with a passion that is, perhaps, so compelling because it is born out of her pain.  In interviews, she confesses that Louis’ journey of impossible odds, periods of torment, grinding despair, righteous rage, blinding fear and then unlikely rescue and finally life-altering redemption all reflect her own journey on a very different level.  She called the writing her experience of vicarious substitution.  As she recounted his life, she lived her own.  “He is an ebullient, effervescent man,” Hillenbrand said, “born to be defiant.”  No wonder this year that the day the new book was published, she handed him a fresh new autographed volume as her gift.  In return, Zamperini gave the author his Purple Heart.  “She deserves it more than me,” explained the aging warrior with a smile.

As a high school kid in Torrance, California during the depression years, the incorrigible Louis Zamperini made do.  His clever thievery went mostly undetected.   Meals would mysteriously turn up missing from the neighbor’s dinner table.  He would gobble the hot plate of food down behind the garage in a back alleyway.  Candy and cigarettes would disappear from the market shelves.  Tools from the neighbor’s garage.  If anyone attempted to catch the thief, in the chase Louis had a distinct advantage, and he knew it: speed.  Young Louis would outrun everybody, especially the victims of his petty theft.  The local police had his name; but many of them privately admired his cunning and mostly the wonder of his airborne stride.  But by the time his high school coach discovered the talent Louis couldn’t find a peer.  He left every competitor in exhausted angst, trailing far behind.  Crowds gathered from far and wide just to witness a Zamperini victory.

He was the fastest high school student in the nation.  It won him a spot on the 1936 Olympic Team.  He ran in Berlin as Adolph Hitler watched.

While most of the headlines involved Jesse Owens, Louis Zamperini was more than a footnote.  The case was strong: this nineteen year old would be the first human being to break what many believed to be an impossible barrier: the four minute mile.  They predicted that Zamperini would to it in the scheduled Tokyo games of 1940.  Pearl Harbor changed all that.  Louis went to war.

Be prepared for a gripping account of the horrors of war in the Pacific.  Brokaw calls it the Greatest Generation.  Zamperini would take issue.  He refuses to claim hero status.

The hell of war becomes Hillenbrand’s narrative, through the experience the young American from Torrance and a couple of years at USC.  The bombing missions over vast ocean spaces to find tiny targets on otherwise forgotten islands; the raging air battles between rickety heavy bombers and agile enemy fighter planes, sleek, fast and deadly; the crash in the remote shark-invested waters when just three of the eleven crew members survived (Louis and his comrade surviving a record setting forty seven days adrift until they were picked up by an enemy ship and transferred for two and a half years in Japanese POW camps); and the menacing commanding officer who became his nemesis nicknamed “The Bird” – all comprise a spellbinding narrative that kept me wanting more.  I won’t tell you the rest.

Except this: Zamperini suffers a debilitating, raging addiction to alcohol in the early post-war years.  Today, we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  It nearly destroyed him.  The turning point came when in 1948, the Billy Graham team set up a tent on Hill and Washington in downtown Los Angeles.

Read Hillenbrand’s version of what happened next.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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