You may not have heard of Frances Whitehead – but if you have read any of John Stott’s books, you will have witnessed her extraordinary handiwork: transforming his handwritten scrawl into immaculate typescript ready for the publishers. For more than 50 years, she worked very closely with him and her perspective on his life and work is unique and valuable.
So it was a total joy for me to spend the best part of a day with her at home in Bourne End, on the Thames, to the west of London, during which our conversation ranged over all kinds of things. Read more
Having spent a few days weeding out stuff from my bursting filing cabinet, I came across a real gem previously forgotten. Back in October 2005, John Stott, then aged 85 and just a year or two off his formal retirement from public ministry, addressed a small group of ministers, invited for the occasion. We’d only recently come back from Uganda and moved to All Souls, so it was a lovely way to start our time here. It wasn’t recorded, and was fairly informal. Read more
It’s not every day that you find a newspaper column quoting Calvin, C S Lewis and G K Chesterton without odium or censure. But that is exactly what happened in a New York Times Op. Ed. on Monday. It’s even more surprising when you realise that its writer is a Jewish American social commentator, David Brooks. He is a thoughtful writer who seems genuinely concerned to understand what makes people tick, without prejudice or name-calling. Some will only know him for the fact that he was the one who wrote the piece on John Stott back in 2004 (which was arguably the principle catalyst for him becoming one of the 2005 Time 100). Read more
I’ve been thinking about this for a while – and was spurred finally to do something about it after the inspiring Memorial Service at St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday. It was a great service – the most affecting were the tributes from Frances Whitehead and Ruth Padilla DeBorst as they felt the most personal. But it was good to have input from Africa and Asia as well as Latin America, and a very apt sermon from Bishop Tim Dudley-Smith. Read more
This is a mildly unserious combination of Q’s Espionage festival and Friday Fun. But London W1 is a spy-historian’s paradise – there are so many spots around here that saw Cold War duty (and the KGB certainly knew their way around). For a start, the formal gardens of Regent’s Park were regular rendezvous points for Cambridge Spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean with their KGB handlers. But there’s another couple of connections that are even closer to home. Read more
Yesterday was one that will be hard to forget: the funeral of an extraordinary man of God. It was an occasion full of gratitude and even joy, but also overwhelming at moments to say goodbye to Uncle John (or as we were reminded in the service, it is only Au Revoir). There was great pathos to think that, as his coffin was carried out, he was leaving All Souls for the last time. Read more
This is not hero-worship. Not only did Uncle John loathe the very idea of it, it is never constructive or edifying to indulge in it. Worshipped heroes always disappoint, like any idol. But it is not wrong to have our heroes: people we look up to, respect, seek to emulate. They are in perilously short supply in our world. It is about appreciating them, in spite of (and sometimes, because of) their foibles, eccentricities and flaws. There is something profoundly Christian about taking our heroes seriously.
Yesterday at 3.15, Uncle John died peacefully at his retirement home. We mourn his loss and rejoice with him.
It is very poignant to be writing this today, as we’re all at the Hookses, Uncle John’s retreat in Wales (see yesterday’s post). The place is full of memories of him – he restored it, oversaw its extension, wrote many of his wonderful books here and above all loved it. And so the news of his death is bitter-sweet.
While studying and writing talks for our All Souls week away next month, I’ve been getting up out of my chair every 5-10 minutes taking photos of exactly the same view. All day. Slightly bonkers you might think – and some will wonder how I get anything done. Well, fair question I suppose. But actually I’ve got the sort of will-o’-the-wisp mind that constantly needs interaction with different things. So bizarre as it may seem, I work best when juggling different things. Read more
This is a post I wrote 4 years ago on the occasion of John Stott’s 86th Birthday. Quite a lot has changed since – not least the fact that he has moved into a retirement/care home in Sussex, and is not really able to move around now. But with this milestone, it seemed entirely appropriate to repost, not least because everything I said in this tribute remains true. Read more
- Martin Bashir is interviewed about his interview of Rob Bell. I was particularly struck by his perception of what C S Lewis called chronological snobbery in contemporary theological debates – whereby those over a certain age (ie 30!) are dismissed out of hand.
- Ian Paul has offered a really helpful response to the BBC1 series Bible’s Buried Secrets
- A wonderful example of doing good to all – let’s hope it works in all senses… Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins.
- And while we’re thinking about him, here’s a nice if brief interview with Francis Collins – quite old now (originally from 2007), but I’ve only just seen it.
- At the other end of of the spectrum, here is a list of the 25 most influential atheists (though quite how you measure influence is anyone’s guess)
- In case you missed it, here is the extraordinary testimony of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated government minister: Read more
On 27th April, John Stott will celebrate his 90th birthday. In the coming years, there will be a great multitude claiming to be inheritors of the Stott legacy. Just has happened with a towering figure like Bonhoeffer, so will it happen to Uncle John. And it is not as outlandish to put them in the same bracket as some may think. For both, albeit in very different ways and as the result of radically different experiences, made a profound impact on twentieth century (and therefore, twenty-first century) Christianity. Of course, some will pick and choose, some will appropriate its mantle without its substance, while others will wonder what all the fuss is about and doubt whether it matters at all.
Well, I think it probably does matter – not least because not to understand the legacy properly is to open the door to a dishonest, partisan or manipulative abuse of history. It is, in large part, a matter of historical, and indeed Christian, integrity. Therefore, this new book, edited by my Langham boss, Chris Wright, and subtitled A Portrait By His Friends, will play something of crucial role in coming years. This is not a chronological account nor deep historical and theological analysis. Those will certainly come in time (and no doubt draw heavily on Timothy Dudley-Smith’s excellent two-volume biography). This is a collection of sketches by some of those who have been closest to him over the years. Thus it will provide essential insights into grasping his personal (though perhaps not his theological) legacy. It really gives a sense of the man (rather better than the image on the cover!). Read more
Over the last few months, we’ve been involved in an intensive process of review and development for the All Souls church website. This has come about for a number of coincidental reasons – the primary one being that the person who has slaved away for years to both write and maintain the site is moving on. So we have the challenge and the opportunity to do something new. The plan is over the autumn for a new, revamped site to be rolled out.
As part of the process, I did some extensive research on what is out there, what is possible and, more significantly, what is appropriate. The team has felt that this was worth sharing more widely in case it is of use for those facing similar questions (on the understanding that some of the discussion within it are of course specific to our context). So here it is…
Some news this week has left me feeling very depressed indeed.
These thoughts have been buzzing round my mind for years, but I’ve been provoked to post by 2 friends’ unconnected experiences: both have suffered at the hands of autocratic church leadership. I’m very fortunate not to have to deal with this in my current job, as I work for and with someone who is the antithesis of such things. But I’ve had enough close contact with it (and counselled others who have suffered it) in the past.
A Crying Need
I remember going to visit John Stott back in 2000, in the months before taking up my job in Uganda, a context that he had some familiarity with. I asked him the question I asked many others before and during my years in Kampala – “what do you think the Ugandan church needs?” Uncle John barely blinked before responding: “Servant Leaders”. I certainly encountered a number of Ugandan Christians who are wonderful examples of such leadership. But sadly, they are far outnumbered by those who are not. Stott was absolutely right.
But this need is far from exclusive to Uganda. It is true everywhere – I’ve heard of its desperate lack on my travels in Eastern Europe and the US – and obviously know it’s a UK problem. As the two achingly depressing stories this week prove.
Handling Power Well?
We have SO much more thinking to do in the area of power. Power is a fact of life; it is a fact of church life. We can’t avoid it. It’s just that we must learn how to handle it well when we have it: in the pulpit, chairing meetings, appointing and managing staff and volunteers, discipling young believers etc. Yet too many naïvely assume it’s not really their problem. Others never consider carefully how to wield the authority they do have. While a few are so scared of the trappings of power that they try to avoid the responsibilities of their jobs altogether. We have a long way to go…
At the very least, we must heed the warnings and model of Christ himself. (Matthew 20:25 & Philippians 2:5-11) etc – and bizarrely enough, I took the theme of servant leadership when preaching on Phil 2 just before Easter.
One of the first things we must do is to identify the tell-tale signs. I’m not suggesting that you can find all these traits in one leader. But the combination of even a few of them makes for a grizzly cocktail… And I articulate them not to point fingers or to name and shame – but to search hearts, especially my own. For none of us is immune…
Features of an autocrat’s pathology
- Leaders don’t have to give (let alone even have) reasons for their decisions… they simply expect to be ‘trusted’. Of course, gut instinct has its part to play, especially for those who have long experience of leadership – but if this is the basis for a decision, then at least have the grace to acknowledge it.
- Disagreement (whether on matters theological, pastoral or strategic etc) is regarded as personal betrayal. This a tricky one, I realise – because every conceivable grouping of human beings will contain its own awkward squad – and their motivations are not always pure, to say the least. But betrayal necessarily…? That is an indication of steps too far.
- Church members are merely pawns on the ministry masterplan chessboard. I saw this in Uganda on a number of occasions, where bishops would move their ministers around the diocese to neutralise rivals. But it happens in local churches too…
- Numerical growth is presumed to imply personal endorsement: thus new converts or new members (esp if they are celebrated for some reason outside Christian circles) are seen as trophies of a leader’s ministry, not trophies of gospel grace. No wonder a celebrity culture of church leaders has emerged (which is the complete opposite of what Paul expects of his leaders in 1 Corinthians 1:12). But an autocrat will be grimly possessive about ‘his converts’.
- Seeing the ‘ministry grow’ (whatever that means and entails) becomes the end that justifies every means: pragmatism rules and integrity withers. This is the logical outworking of shoot first, seek forgiveness later. After all, that’s what the gospel does, isn’t it?! But while I’m all for pragmatism as a servant, it is horrific as a master – as Machiavelli once proved…
- Ministry teams are monochrome, or compliant, or both: diversity is a threat to an autocrat, because the leader has to be the best at everything that the team/church does (after all, that’s why he’s the leader, isn’t it?!)…
Each one of these features requires elaboration – each is probably worthy of a blog post of its own. But it’s a start.
We must turn our back on such things, as they characterise some of the shameful ways of ministry we are called to shun when we preach Christ not ourselves. It is not kingdom thinking.
O Lord, deliver us…
You wouldn’t expect John Stott to change his tune in his 89th year. And of course he hasn’t. The Radical Disciple is his 51st book – and while his thinking has developed and deepened over the decades, he has never changed direction. He’s always faced Jesus – and he does so all the more eagerly in the twilight years before the eternal dawn.
Vintage Prose and Pithy Clarity
If you’re familiar with his writing and speaking, then you won’t find anything surprisingly innovative or any marked departures – and much of what this book contains he’s said before in other places. But that’s not the point. What matters is that he has picked these characteristics of Christian discipleship to expound – despite calling them ‘selective’ and ‘somewhat arbitrary’ (p137). Each is touched on lightly and briefly, but with all the hallmarks of Stott’s vintage prose and pithy clarity of thought still firmly in place:
- Non-Conformity: “we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world” (p19)
- Christlikeness: “we are to be like Christ in his incarnation, in his service, in his love, in his endurance, and in his mission” (p38)
- Maturity: “may God give us such a full, clear vision of Jesus Christ, first that we may grow into maturity ourselves, and secondly that, by faithful proclamation of Christ in his fullness to others, we may present others mature as well.” (p53)
- Creation-Care: “God intends our care of the creation to reflect our love for the Creator” (p65)
- Simplicity: “All Christians claim to have received a new life from Jesus Christ. What lifestyle, then, is appropriate for them? If the life is new, the lifestyle should be new also” (p71)
- Balance: “We are both individual disciples and church members, both worshippers and witnesses, both pilgrims and citizens. Nearly all our failures stem from the ease with which we forget our comprehensive identity as disciples.” (p102)
- Dependence: “We are all designed to be a burden to others… The life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.‘” (p113)
- Death: “If we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective.” (p135)
He chooses these because, as he reflects on western (which I suppose primarily means UK & USA Christian culture), he is anxious about their dwindling importance. We’d be utter fools to ignore the observations of so wise an elder statesman. Their challenge is straightforward and unavoidable – not least because John practises what he preaches. It is quite something, is it not, for a man in his 9th decade to be making an appeal for people to be radical?! Retirement is usually the time for conservatism and comfortable ease, not the prickly and disturbing calls for Christ-like discipleship.
The chapters are not even, in the sense of being similarly structured or equally expository:
- the Christlikeness chapter takes a topical approach, touching on various aspects of Christ’s life and character we should emulate;
- the Non-Conformity and Creation-Care chapters are also topical, but show a sustained awareness of contemporary issues: hence his helpful articulation of 4 challenging trends in the former (pluralism, materialism, ethical relativism and narcissism) and 4 ingredients of the current ecological crisis (population growth, depletion of earth’s resources, waste disposal and climate change). Not bad going for someone who’s 89 in April.
- the Simplicity chapter is essentially a publication of a statement issued after a Lausanne consultation led by John and Ron Sider in 1980. The whole statement plus commentary is online: An evangelical commitment to a simple lifestyle. I’d not come across it before and was profoundly challenged by it.
- the Balance chapter is somewhat unexpectedly an involved exposition of 1 Peter 2:1-17 – but I’d never quite seen before the way Peter mixes his metaphors in the chapter and this was illuminating (as newborn babies we are called to growth, as living stones to fellowship, as holy priests to worship, as God’s own people to witness, as aliens and strangers to holiness and as servants of God to citizenship).
Pastoral Reality with Personal Candour
But despite the chapters’ varieties of style or approach, they are always biblical and theological, and yet also pastoral and real. It is so helpful to have thumbnail sketches of people he’s been challenged or influenced by, some widely known, others not so, some British, most not. These ground the book.
What is new, perhaps, is that as the book draws to a close, Uncle John becomes increasingly candid. He’s always been an honest and humble man, but no one could remain unaffected by the poignancy of the last 2 chapters particularly. I well remember that Sunday morning in 2006 (described in chapter 7) when he was getting ready to preach at All Souls, but tripped in his flat and broke his hip, which resulted in an emergency hip replacement operation. We were involved in the All Souls week away down in Devon that weekend, but heard about it very quickly and we were all shocked. But it still didn’t prepare me to read his own agonising account of that morning:
I knew at once that I had broken or dislocated my hip, for I could not move, let alone get up. I was able, however, to push the panic button I was wearing and kind friends immediately came to my rescue…
… as this chapter progresses please do not forget my earlier experiences, spreadeagled on the floor, completely dependent on others. For this is where, from time to time, the radical disciple needs to be. I believe that dependence involved in these experiences can be used by God to bring about greater maturity in us.
…There is another aspect of the dependence which I experienced which was new to me, which I am tempted to gloss over, but which my trusted friends have urged me not to conceal. It is the emotional weakness which physical infirmity sometimes brings to the surface and which finds expression in weeping. (pp104-105)
There are few who would be prepared to turn so private and painful an experience into so public and challenging a lesson.
This really is John’s last book! His previous one – The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor – was heralded by some as his last but he seems to have known that he had one more in him. But there really are no more – and he concludes the Radical Disciple with a poignant farewell to his readers.
However, it is fitting, I think, to see these last two books as of a piece. They have a neat symmetry to them, as he concludes a long ministry.
- In The Living Church, he expounds the key hallmarks of what constitutes Church life, in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
- In The Radical Disciple, he expounds the key hallmarks of a Christian’s life, again in all its diversity, challenges and joys.
Of course, there will be things that people disagree with, no doubt. Some of the areas in the books are hot topics (e.g. Christians and the environment). And some have criticised what is seen as an obsession with balance when things are supposedly more complex or wrinkled. In neither of these books will we find in-depth analysis or argumentation to make his case.
But then why should we?! John has spent a lifetime doing just that, thinking, teaching and writing, often at great length and with great care (see this non-exhaustive bibliography). But these two books are more a summation, a last will and testament. They form a fitting conclusion to his legacy, one which it will probably take decades fully to appreciate.
It remains to be said that if this legacy is to be sustained and grow, then people need to give themselves to it deliberately. One way is for people to pray for and give to the Langham Partnership – for which he appeals at the end of the Radical Disciple – you can do that here.
But the best way is surely for us to live just as we are called to in these two books… just as, in fact, he himself has sought to live.
I came across this little article about 6-word memoirs through the wonders of StumbleUpon – the challenge derives from Ernest Hemingway who proved that he could write a 6-word ‘novel’. This was his offering:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Genius – it perfectly, achingly, succinctly evokes everything. At one level, nothing more needs saying. Nothing is hidden. But at another level, so much more could be said. Above all, the imagination is fired.
Others have since jumped onto the bandwagon, and various attempts have been compiled and published. I particularly liked graffiti artist Mare 139’s, who wrote:
Wasn’t noticed so I painted trains.
Or this anon. one:
love my cake, eat it too
But of course, it’s easy to be cynical about the exercise. Spin doctors have scared us off – we’re suspicious of lines that sound crisp and neat, when we know that reality really isn’t. And it’s an unhelpful tendency in theology too – we preachers are particularly culpable of presenting reality as too tight, too neat, too straightforward.
And yet, it’s no accident that the art of precis gets taught in schools (or at least was ‘in my day’!) – it’s a key skill in the art of textual comprehension. If one can’t summarise something well, it probably means we’ve not understood it well. There is something about Twitter (with its 140 character limit) that intensely focuses the mind (or not, as the case may be for the vast majority of tweets which are flabby and bland). This is in part what lies behind Abraham Piper’s enjoyable 22 words blog (which he calls ‘an experiment in getting to the point’).
So don’t we need both? Beware the trite and platitudinous (or even dishonest); but strive after the lucid and pithy. This was, I believe, one of John Stott’s incalculable gifts as a writer and teacher.
So how about it? A 6-word summary of the Christian message that walks the tightrope? I wonder if the apostle Paul might have suggested these words from Colossians 1:27 (ok, slightly cheating to put ‘the’ in brackets, but hey) – it’s one of my all-time favourite descriptions of the nature and privilege of the gospel
Christ in you, [the] hope of glory
And as a memoir/testimony? I think this would be mine, a paraphrase of Mark 9:24:
I do believe; overcome my unbelief!
So why not you give it a shot… any great 6 word summaries or testimonies out there??