John Stott would like us to stop, study and struggle
It was an extremely cold January afternoon and the rain was clicking on the side of the windows when John Stott came out of his office. It was teatime, and a large pot was brewing on the small counter in the kitchenette at The Hermitage, Uncle John’s comfortable lodgings in one of the old Hookses farm buildings, his rural retreat in Wales.
“Oh JY,” John told me wearily, rubbing his temples, “I have a terrible case of PIM.” Its acronym meant pain in the mind. That was his way of describing what it was like to struggle with a difficult writing project or a seemingly intractable problem, and it was a phrase I knew well after 18 months of working as John’s study assistant.
Between 1977 and 2007, 14 young men, mostly Americans, served Uncle John (as we called him) in that capacity. Our work was as vast as John’s life, which was delightfully multifaceted.
During my years as a study assistant, I have researched several books; go shopping; and served as a bodyguard, driver and travel companion, in addition to cooking, cleaning and waiting on tables. Working hand in hand with Frances Whitehead, his incomparable secretary, John has called us “the happy triumvirate”.
Frances was in London on that cold January afternoon when John and I were in Hookses. John had spent the day working on revisions for a new edition of his well-known book, Problems facing Christians today. Aside from a short lunch break and his regular afternoon nap, he had been at his desk since 5.30am that morning. After a 15-minute tea break, he returned to his desk until 7 p.m. No wonder he’s tired.
Over tea we discussed the progress he had made that day and the state of my research on the chapter he would be addressing the next day. We also indulged in shortbread cookies (which were known to be an effective treatment for PIM). As he got up to return to work, he patted the white tufts of hair he had disturbed at his temples and said:
“JY, there are certain tasks that cannot be accomplished without sharp pain in the mind. They’re rarely fun, but they’re always worth it. “
As we celebrate the centenary from John’s birth this week, I thought about the pain in my mind. John was an undeniably brilliant communicator, known for the clarity and conciseness of his thinking. But his natural gifts did not relieve him of the struggle of careful study and the effort required to understand the Word of God and apply it in the modern world.
Another favorite acronym of John was BBC. He took pleasure in explaining that this did not represent the British Broadcasting Corporation, but rather balanced biblical Christianity. John was not afraid to take an unpopular position if Scripture demanded it. But he never rushed into an opinion. In his quest for a balanced, biblical Christianity, he worked tirelessly to understand every perspective on a topic before arriving at a thoughtful judgment rooted in scripture.
In an age of sound bites and Twitter feeds, many Christian leaders are so busy trying to keep up with current events that few of us take the time to stop, study, and struggle to teach the people of God. Too often we take sides and stick with it without the discipline to listen or question our instincts. The thin veneer of our discipleship shows cracks as a result.
In this complex and ever-changing world, we don’t need more feedback. We need more pain in the mind. John was ready to endure this pain, not only in the quiet of his study, but in the company of others as well. He understood that the work of preaching and teaching requires the unwavering suffering of careful reflection.
The living room of the cottage outside of Nairobi, Kenya was packed with an eclectic assortment of people. An archbishop, an ornithologist, a seminary professor, young students and a few old friends had gathered for morning coffee and a chat with Uncle John.
For most of the morning John was peppered with questions on topics ranging from bird watching to Bible interpretation. However, throughout the ebb and flow, John engaged each person individually, attracting them and getting to know those he first met. The study assistant’s job at these meetings was to listen, learn each name, and take careful notes.
That night, before bed, John and I met in his room to review the day and pray. We went through my notes from that morning, making a careful list of the books he had promised to send, a reference letter he had agreed to write, a question he needed to think about to a friend and a pair of special pliers (used in bird banding) that he had volunteered to track down in England and ship to Kenya. During this three week trip to East Africa there were countless gatherings like this, many of which resulted in personal commitments from John.
After returning to London late at night a week later, John got up early the next morning to dictate. When Frances arrived at the office, she had 15 letters to type, and I had a long list of books to wrap and specialty items to purchase. These bird banding pliers have taken me all over London.
John was a shy and emotionally protected Englishman, but he was extremely generous in friendship. He had a special concern for the under-resourced and the underprivileged, and a constant affection for young Christians. He would engage in a months-long correspondence with an undergraduate student in Burundi as quickly as he would with the Archbishop of Kenya.
And he would persist in those friendships over the years, delighting as they spread to the next generation. This was the story of my own relationship with John, whom I first knew as a young boy and was often a visiting preacher at my father’s church.
John’s leadership ability was extraordinary. The impact of his work is felt around the world today and will continue to be felt for many decades to come. His influence, however, goes far beyond the institutions he founded and the movements he shaped. This is most evident in the relationships he has had.
During this long season of isolation and separation caused by the pandemic, I have often thought about Uncle John’s ability to nurture personal relationships and his unwavering commitment to all kinds of people, regardless of barriers. social, cultural or racial. By virtue of his generosity and firmness in friendship, he created around himself a thick community of surprisingly different people rooted in the grace of Christ. It is a wonderful picture of what the Church can be for a world of division and indifference.
The Evangelical Students International Fellowship Conference in Marburg, Germany attracted students from all over Europe and the former Soviet Union. John was the primary Bible teacher for the four-day meeting, speaking each morning for nearly an hour, with simultaneous translation provided through headphones in more than a dozen different languages.
The translators were all volunteers, inexperienced students who had courageously stepped up to help. Recognizing how challenging it would be for them to translate on the fly, John volunteered to meet with these students each afternoon to resume his speech for the next day.
These afternoon sessions became the highlight of the week for students and teachers. The enthusiastic translators asked for definitions and clarification, often mocking John’s idiomatic English and sometimes the indecipherable upper-class accent. John marveled at their energy and dedication and gleefully exhausted himself making sure they were as prepared as he was. When he spoke each morning, he slowed down and stopped after difficult sentences, giving his new disciples time to catch up.
Each evening, the other keynote speaker, a renowned evangelist, inspired the large crowd of students with incredible stories and incredible energy. Anglophones were transfixed. Translators, however, have been left behind and wrung out, leaving non-English speakers confused and playing catch-up. The talks were a tour de force understood by less than half of the participants.
While many leaders are known for their egos, John is rightly remembered for his humility. One of the hallmarks of this humility was his deep sensitivity to the needs of others and his tireless commitment to meeting those needs. Little distracted by concern for himself, he had the mental and emotional energy to take care of those around him.
While some leaders seek glimpses of themselves in the eyes of others, John has looked into the eyes of others as windows instead of mirrors, seeking to glimpse their hearts and minds.
On the last morning of this Easter conference, John insisted that the young translators come out of their soundproof booths and join him on stage to be thanked by their peers. It was the strongest joy of the week, during which John slipped quietly out of the spotlight.
In this centennial of his birth, I pray that God will give the Church more leaders like John Stott: leaders who understand the value of pain in the spirit, who are generous in their personal friendship, and who are humble enough. so as not to simply share the spotlight. but to emerge entirely from its warm glow in order to pass on the legacy of divine leadership to the next generation.
John Yates is the rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was John Stott’s study assistant from 1996 to 1999.
CT offers a special collection of articles by and about John Stott.