When you are reading this, Antoinette and I will be in Wales, at the Hookses, an old farm house, barn and cottage, my old friend and mentor, John Stott bought in 1954, and fitted out as a retreat for himself and a few friends. John is now 86, and invited us to join him for a week there last year but we were unable to go. This year we felt we needed to join him. He only uses it one week a year now, for he has given the property to Langham Partnership International, a missionary organization he founded some years ago.
We will be joining John and his secretary of more than fifty years, Frances Whitehead; his successor as rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, Richard Bewes; Sara Thompson, the widow of John’s assistant that I succeeded at All Souls in 1967; Julian Charley, a noted theologian, and his wife Claire; John Smith, who used to be my colleague at the Polytechnic of Central London (now the University of Westminster), and fellow-resident at the All Souls Rectory when we were single, and his wife Anna; and Neil and Jenny Woodward who are from Australia and New Zealand, and who have recently been caregivers for John. Also joining us will be the author, Roger Steer, who has been commissioned by InterVarsity Press (IVP) to write a biography of John. He wants me to supply him with material from John’s life for his book, so I presume that I will have to come up with reminiscences to satisfy him!
The Hookses is located in a little valley on the edge of a disused WWII airfield, now occupied by sheep, running down to the Pembrokeshire coast. It looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean, on high cliffs, near the village of Dale. I first visited it in 1964 when I took a group of young people from All Souls Church down there for a weekend. Antoinette and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary there in March 1971. We have returned over the years for visits with John Stott, and our mutual friends. When we first visited it there was no electricity, and light was by paraffin oil lamps!
John Stott used the Hookses as a writer’s retreat. He would leave behind his busy life in London, and spend a week or two writing his latest book. It would seem that every year he has published a new book. His latest is THE LIVING CHURCH: CONVICTIONS OF A LIFELONG PASTOR. Its Table of Contents reveals a comprehensive vision of ministry that is balanced and vital.
1. Essentials: God’s Vision for His Church
2. Worship: Glorying in God’s Holy Name
3. Evangelism: Mission Through the Local Church
4. Ministry: The Twelve and the Seven
5. Fellowship: The Implications of Koinonia
6. Preaching: Five Paradoxes
7. Giving: Ten Principles
8. Impact: Salt and Light
It is followed by three appendixes:
1. Why I Am Still A Member of the Church of England
2. I Have a Dream of A Living Church
3. Reflections of an Octogenarian.
I was extremely fortunate to have begun my ministry under his guidance. His wise and disciplined leadership was a model for me to follow. There is no doubt that much of any effectiveness I have had is due to his example.
What will be the value of this week in Wales? It will give me the opportunity to encourage John at this stage in his life, and to return to him some of the support he has given me over a lifetime. He was a surrogate father in God to me at an impressionable age, and ever since. Now that we have grown old together I appreciate him even more.
It will also give us time to share with one another the challenges of being Christ’s followers in the twenty-first century. There will be times of devotion, study, prayer and discussion. I plan to do some writing of my own. It will be a real group retreat which I pray will strengthen us for the future. Hopefully I will return to be able to serve Christ better. I pray that the Spirit will minister to us during this time, and that I will be able to listen to what God is saying to me.
The last words John Stott wrote in his latest book are about humility. He quoted Michael Ramsey who gave the following advice:
1. Thank God, often and always, carefully and wonderingly, for your continuing privileges. Thankfulness is the soil in which pride does not easily grow.
2. Take care about confession of your sins. Be sure to criticize yourself in God’s presence: that is your self-examination.
3. Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly, but they help you to be humble. There can be trivial humiliations. Accept them. There can be bigger humiliations. All these can be so many chances to be a little nearer to our humble and crucified Lord.
4. Do not worry about status. There is only one status that our Lord bids us to be concerned with, and that is the status of proximity to himself.
5. Use your sense of humor. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity. We are all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within God’s universe. You have to be serious, but never be solemn, because if you are solemn about anything there is the risk of becoming solemn about yourself.
In conclusion, John Stott ended with his characteristic emphasis on the cross. “It is at the cross of Christ that humility grows. As Emil Brunner wrote, other religions spare us the ultimate humiliation of being stripped naked and declared bankrupt before God. I have no greater desire than to make the apostle Paul’s declaration authentically mine:
”˜May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ (Galatians 6:14)”
For someone who has been honored by the Queen for his services, read by millions of people throughout the world, who has raised up generations of Christian leaders in the Third World, and has given all his royalties to buy books for poor pastors, his ultimate teaching on humility is instructive. “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7,8)