July 27, 2011. John R.W. Stott went to be with our Lord today, surrounded by friends and family. The world has lost a good and great man today, and I join thousands of his friends worldwide in losing a spiritual mentor. It is a hard day.
From 2005 to 2006 I had the pleasure and privilege of serving “Uncle John,” as he was known to friends around the world, as his study assistant. Previous incarnations of study assistants had frantically tried to keep pace with the international ministry of a man three times their age. But by the time I arrived, time had slowed him down somewhat, and so I spent a happy year literally by his side, walking near his left elbow to help compensate for a stroke-induced loss of sight. Together with his indefatigable secretary, Frances Whitehead, our “Happy Triumvirate” carried out the twilight of a global ministry that continued to touch millions around the world.
But it is John Stott the disciple of Christ that I mourn today, rather than John Stott the Evangelical statesman. For in my year with him he continually revealed the Lord to whom he had given his life, whole cloth.
This quality revealed itself in intimate flashes, not grand gestures. The sweetness of his spirit made him delight in the smallest of things. He loved my wife Natalie’s bright red wool coat, and would delightedly hail, “The lady in scarlet!” whenever she would come in from the cold. And as someone who would have been content to eat beans on toast for every meal—and whose tiny refrigerator contained perishables of dubious age—he was eternally bemused by the zestier meals we tried to cook for dinners during the weeks spent at the Hookses, his beloved writing retreat in Wales.
His humor was mischievous without a hint of irony or malice, and certain things would send him into fits of laughter. We followed each supper with him washing the dishes (always at his insistence), a square of chocolate and then an evening listening to books on tape; we will forever have the memory, captured on video, of him chortling uncontrollably at a line from P.G. Wodehouse.
And the birds! A lifelong birdwatcher, his love for this slow, patient pastime was infectious. For my birthday he sent me and Natalie to an island to see the comical puffins, which he adored. And he was forever pushing the limits of his aging body along the beautiful cliffs of his beloved Welsh headlands, where gulls and ravens and gannets danced, in his eyes, to the glory of God.
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, in the year I spent with him, I never saw him angry once—despite the travails of aging and a sometimes stumbling Yankee assistant.
I last saw Uncle John this April, a few weeks before his 90th birthday, and we both knew it was our earthly goodbye. His body, which had remained relatively strong even into very old age, was wracked with pain and infirmity, and he spoke with difficulty. So our conversation was slow and sweet and walked the line between themes of tiny temporality, like my then-pending move to Toronto, and eternal topics.
At the end of our time together I read him a chapter from a just-released book of vignettes about him by his friends. (He had initially insisted that it only be released posthumously, but ceded to InterVarsity Press’s request that it be published if he made it to 90!) The chapter I read to him described his formative days at Cambridge, where he became a champion of evangelical faith. When I finished, there was a pause, and then he said, “I’d like for you to read us a Scripture, and then we can pray.”
“Is there a Scripture you’d like me to read?” I asked.
“Yes,” he immediately replied. “Second Corinthians 4.”
Startled by the speed of the direction, I took a Bible off the shelf and began to read, attempting to keep the growing incredulity off my face as I did. For 2 Corinthians 4 brings together perfectly the themes of plain-spoken faith that I had just read out loud concerning his time at Cambridge—“by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God”—along with the frailty of his current condition—“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
This is who John Stott was: a man so steeped in Scripture, as the revealed witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, that it had become the very soil from which his thoughts grew—even in pain and infirmity. The New Testament is not ripe with advice for how Christians may grow old. But Uncle John was a living testament to the abundant harvest yielded by a daily sowing of prayer, generosity, kindness and humility, across decades.
In the coming days there will be a new tombstone in a tiny churchyard in Dale, a stone’s throw from the Hookses, and it will read April 27, 1921–July 27, 2011. But John Stott did not die today. He died more than a half century ago, when he accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on his behalf. And as Paul declares in 2 Corinthians, Uncle John bore that death every day since, until his last, as he sought to reveal with word and deed the life that was no longer his, which was hidden in Christ. I have never known a man who so conformed to the image of his savior. And so, though he is taken from us and I miss him dearly, he is even closer at hand tonight than he was this morning, wholly consumed, at last, in the life and likeness of the Lord he loves.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (@TylerWS) is the founding director of the Two Futures Project (@2FP).