I first encountered John Stott as a young Christian in the early 1970s by reading his books Basic Christianity and Understanding the Bible. These books helped me to develop a reasonable faith. As a science undergraduate I discovered that I didn’t have to discard my brain in order to believe.
A different encounter took place at an AFES national conference in Bathurst when I sat under his preaching for the first time. John’s clear exposition of Ephesians blew me away. He was the sort of preacher and teacher I wanted to be. Over the years his many books helped to shape my thinking and preaching and I continue to value works such as The Cross of Christ, Issues Facing Christians Today, Essentials, I Believe in Preaching and the Bible Speaks Today Commentaries.
It was in 1997 that my first personal encounter with John occurred. I had just moved with my family to London to work at All Souls, Langham Place. On the day we arrived the phone rang. My wife picked up the phone to hear the words: ‘It’s John Stott here. A warm welcome to London and a warm welcome to All Souls. I have been praying for you all.’ John then asked about the family and how we had coped with the travelling. After chatting over points for prayer he invited me to join him for afternoon tea in a few weeks’ time. As I put down the phone I was amazed that this world-famous author, preacher and Christian leader with so many demands on his time and so many people to see, took time to phone and wish me and my family well.
Over my time at All Souls I saw this generosity of spirit and humility of character time and time again. In many ways it is this side of John rather than his books and global leadership that has stuck with me and which I seek to emulate in my own life.
His simple attitude. When John retired as Rector of All Souls, he moved into a two-room flat behind the rectory in Weymouth Street. It was a comfortable flat but very basic—not what you might expect from someone of his stature. He ate, dressed and lived simply. He eschewed television, daily newspapers and the internet. In comparison to this my own life seems so often full of stuff and things that waste my time.
His enjoyment of the ordinary things in life. John appreciated many of the simple things that we take for granted: conversations, walks, reading, and of course his beloved bird-watching. An extravagance might be a trip to Leicester Square to see his favourite cinema genre—James Bond films!
He gave of himself to others. Whenever John preached at All Souls, he would greet people as they left the church. Inevitably some would make a fuss and insist on having photos taken or books autographed, yet John never showed contempt. He saw it as important to them and thus obliged with grace and dignity.
He was a man of prayer. Although his public prayer before preaching was the same it was never insincere : ‘Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence. May your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher, and your greater glory our supreme concern, through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ His private times of prayer were the same. They began as soon as he awoke with the words: ‘Good morning Heavenly Father. Good morning Lord Jesus. Good morning Holy Spirit’ and were followed by meditation on the Bible and praying over long lists of people whom he knew from around the world. I was humbled one day when I realized that the reason he could ask me about each of my children by name, was that he had been praying for our family on one of his lists. Prayer for John was the hidden source of power.
As I reflect on John’s life I am grateful to God for so many things: his ability to preach and teach in such a way as to make the message of the Bible clear and applicable; his balanced approach to contentious issues that at times divide us; his call for evangelicals not to retreat into isolationism nor separatism but to engage with the wider church. But it was his godly character that challenges me the most. I could excuse myself from being like this by saying that John was simply an extraordinary man. But I am sure that John would point me away from himself to the Christ who calls me to follow and the Spirit who promises to empower. His message would be clear: rather than saying ‘I cannot’, I ought to be saying ‘why not?’.
Richard Trist is Dean of the Anglican Institute, Ridley Melbourne, and Secretary of EFAC Australia.
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