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John Stott: 1921 – 2011

At 3.15pm on Wednesday 27th July 2011, at his retirement home at St. Barnabas College, Surrey, John Robert Walmsley Stott passed away from this life. His death was caused directly by complications related to old age, having lived 90 years in this earthly body, and in a slightly more removed manner, from the natural consequences of the Fall. He was surrounded by Frances Whitehead, and a number of good friends and they were reading the Scriptures and listening to Handel’s Messiah when he left.

The news came not only from All Souls Church where he was curate, rector then rector emeritus and his organisations (Langham Partnership International, John Stott Ministries in the United States of America) – obituaries were up also at Christianity Today, The New York Times, The Telegraph, John Piper’s Desiring God, Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds. The snap pace at which the John RW Stott memorial site (virtual of course) was set up suggested that those close to him anticipated his, as some put it, promotion to glory.

We were reminded of Uncle John’s influence on evangelical Christianity today, his bird-watching obsession, his celibate bachelorhood (it would be awfully dull if someone tried to do an expose on his relationship with Frances Whitehead, his long-time secretary), his incisive mind, his patient kind humility, his famous-ness.

It must have been a terribly unhelpful thing to be fete-d all around the world. “Pride is without doubt the greatest temptation of Christian leaders,” he’d said. So one wonders why his friends kept setting snares of Christian celebrity for him. And that very fame may stumble the rest of us who tend to worship the creature rather than the Creator; all the little boasts on Facebook and Twitter about having actually heard Stotty, IN PERSON!, suggests the danger that if it wasn’t so un-evangelical cool to do so, many a fanboy or fangirl would have petitioned the Vatican for his sainthood.

Yet while sinful humans may also yearn to practise Stott’s humility for the pride of being known to be outstandingly humble, God works all things for the good of those who love him: the anecdotes are instructive as to how a Christian with a clear mind about his humble position before God might act (especially if he were gifted with said clear mind, persuasive speech and ministries of apparent current fruitfulness):

James Nardella, 28, was among the smattering that came. The lack of pomp surprised him, he said, adding, “It was just this man who came to preach at a church.”

Ajith Fernando, a Methodist church leader and head of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. “Sometimes I feel an anger close to racism has arisen in the minds of Christian leaders, out of the sense that Western leaders do not understand the concerns of people in the rest of the world. There is a suspicion that what they want is to fulfill their agenda in our countries—another form of colonialism? With people like John Stott around it was impossible for me to nurture such feelings toward the West. Here was humility personified. We are grateful that he gave so much time coming to the poorer nations not with some huge program which would impress the whole world, but simply to teach us the Bible.”

Latin American theologian Rene Padilla remembers vividly one of his early encounters with Stott. “On the previous night we had arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, in the middle of heavy rain. The street was muddy and, as a result, by the time we got to the room that had been assigned to us, our shoes were covered with mud. In the morning, as I woke up, I heard the sound of a brush—John was busy, brushing my shoes. ‘John!’ I exclaimed full of surprise, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘My dear René,’ he responded,’Jesus taught us to wash each other’s feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.'”

Theologian David Wells, who shared a household with him for five years in the early 1960s. “He was known all over the world, but when you met him he was a most devout, humble Christian man. His private life was no different from his public life. It was the same person. That’s another way to say that he had integrity. There was no posing.”

Tim Chester. “When I was nineteen I attended a day conference in Newcastle at which John Stott was the speaker. When we arrived, the friend with whom I’d come went off to the toilet and I was left alone, feeling out of place. An older man came over and began talking to me, asking me about myself. After a few moments my friend returned and the man introduced himself, ‘Hello, I’m John Stott.’ My jaw nearly hit the floor. I’d been speaking to the great John Stott without realizing it. That moment made a big impression on me. John – who was the only speaker that day – had seen an awkward looking teenager on his own and taken it upon himself to make him feel welcome. I met him a few times subsequently and he always remembered my name.”

O Lord, please grant that you will find us faithful all the days you have ordained for us.

*Copyright to quotations and photos reside with the copyright owners stipulated by All Souls Church and Langham Place International from which these images and quotations were taken (other than the quote from Tim Chester which is from his own site).

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