This past weekend has been in the diary for months as a family holiday. This book, John Stott: a portrait by his friends, has been targeted as my weekend reading matter for almost as long. The fact that John Stott died just the day before we left added a poignancy to the time in its pages.
John Stott had an “incredible capacity for friendship” (13). This little book, released to honour his 90th birthday, collects the reflections of 35 friends from the eras and time zones in which his life was lived. While this sounds like a recipe for unadulterated adulation, I did not find this to be the case. With both text and photo this compilation uncovers an honesty, humour, and humanity in Stott's life which maybe the earlier biographies - by Timothy Dudley-Smith by Roger Steer - did not achieve quite as readily.
As a way to nurture the honesty it was Stott’s desire that it be a ‘warts and all’ story which he had no interest in reading before publication (in fact, his initial preference was that it be published posthumously). One only needs to read the chapter by Myra Chave-Jones where the younger Stott is described as an inhibited person, known to become angry, and “not always a good judge of character” (36) - or, how his assistant for 50 years, Frances Whitehead, observes how he has "wonderfully mellowed" (55) over the years - to discover that more than adulation is suggested in these pages.
The book is littered with a mixture of humorous Stottian quips ('Flattery is like cigarette smoke – it does you no harm so long as you don't inhale’) and stories. There are lots of laughs in these pages. My favourite story is of the 'rather large' pastor in Florida ('it had likely been some years since he saw his feet') who introduced Stott with a flourish: 'I would crawl on my knees, 500 miles, just to hear John Stott speak'. But then he sat down in the front row and promptly fell asleep. Stott's conclusion? "I can only assume that the poor man was utterly exhausted from his 500 mile crawl" (140).
And the humanity is evident as well. For many, Stott remains ‘the most Christ-like person they have ever met’ – but his obsession with Christ was mixed with lesser obsessions with birds (if there was an index to the book, this might be the largest entry as they are flying all over these pages about a self-confessed 'ornitheologian'), chocolate (except in Lent), the cold baths every morning, the writer Saki, "digging a hole for his hip" (159) on some random hillside to enable his 'horizontal half hour' – and even a penchant for James Bond movies.
(I was thrilled to find this photo, as it has John Stott sitting in the 'seat' in the cliff near The Hookses from which he wrote books like Basic Christianity).
However what will remain with me is that this book engages with the people who knew him best and these people are themselves trying to capture the essence of their friend in just a few paragraphs. There are so many phrases which add such insight: “the gracious, perceptive leader” (Michael Green); the “compelling seriousness” (Frances Whitehead); that enigmatic “blend of passion and balance, humility and authority, scholarship and simplicity, austerity and warmth” (David Turner); listeners being “held in thoughtful wonder as John Stott illumined the text” (Keith & Gladys Hunt); “the clarity, forcefulness and pastoral wealth of his words” (Samuel Escobar); “a veritable modern-day church father” (Peter Kuzmic); “a drive for clarity, a confidence in rationality, an expectation of competency” (Mark Labberton).
On and on it goes ... pausing here and there for nuggets of wisdom as well. With young Kiwi, Ted Schroeder, developing as a preacher: "guard your flanks" (61). With a young Chris Wright, developing as a scholar: "preserve your independence" (144).
The freshest contributions for me came in the chapters from David Turner (80-86, a judge who I see has written the obituary for the Guardian), Peter Harris (155-161, the founder of A Rocha), and Mark Labberton (187-192, a study-assistant who is now the Preaching lecturer at Fuller Seminary). The most memorable story came from Ajith Fernando where he discovers that his heavily annotated copy of The Cross of Christ has fallen out the window of a Sri Lankan bus. He stops the bus so that he can go in search of his copy of “the most enriching doctrinal book I have ever read” (107). You'll have to read the book to discover how he gets on...
I think the book works well - even better than I expected when I started reading. The 'approximately chronological' flow to the chapters helps. With John Stott's death placing him in the headlines and with a generation that 'know him not' occupying our churches - we need to look for ways to introduce the man and his writings to people. On the Sunday evening before he died, the pastor where I was preaching asked for a show-of-hands from 250+ young adults - "how many of you have heard of John Stott?". A generous estimate is that three people raised their hands. The reasons are there - but it was still a sad sight ... and this ‘portrait by his friends’ could serve well as a place where a new antipodean generation can meet the most influential leader in the worldwide (evangelical) church over the past generation, or three. Now neither Jesus nor John Stott would talk or think like that - but sometimes the facts need to be stated!
As I read the same old question surfaced yet again. Why did the church in New Zealand need to be so inhospitable to John Stott, with his last visit to our shores being more than forty years ago? How many Kiwis had to resort to crossing waters or opening pages to be influenced by this man? His visits to Australia must have out-numbered NZ by 10 to 1. It shows up in the paucity of our traditions of saintly scholarship, of authoritative and relevant biblical exposition, of a 'double listening' to word and world, and the best in a clear, yet spacious, evangelicalism. There may be a generation that 'knows not John Stott' but I hope and pray that it can still be a generation that rests its thoughts on similar convictions, even as it lives its life with similar habits.
Towards the end of the book is recorded Stott’s response to the doctor when asked for an explanation of his wishes should he become incapacitated or unconscious. He does so before concluding with: “... the reason that I do not wish to cling to life is that I have a living hope of a yet more glorious life beyond death, and I do not wish to be unnecessarily hindered from inheriting it” (211). In God’s goodness, he inherited it just last week. As with his sermons, so also in his birth and death there can be found clarity and symmetry - because the year within the decade and the date within the month are the same: John Stott, 27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011.
While John Stott has been my hero and my inspiration throughout my working life, it is also true, as Chris Wright expresses it, that “the key thing is not to try to imitate him, but to imitate the Christ who so demonstrably lived within him” (216). He lived for Christ and his greater glory and our response should be “above all, to cling to the cross” (198).
[NB - with thanks to Kieran Dodds for the final photo in this post]