It was a bitterly cold January afternoon and rain was pinging sideways off the windows when John Stott emerged from his study. It was teatime, and a large pot was brewing on the small counter of the kitchenette of The Hermitage, Uncle John’s cozy living quarters in one of the old farm buildings at the Hookses, his rural retreat in Wales.
“Oh JY,” John said to me, wearily, rubbing his temples, “I have a terrible case of PIM.” His acronym stood for pain in the mind. It was his way of describing what it felt like to wrestle over a difficult writing project or a seemingly intractable problem, and it was a phrase I knew well after 18 months working as John’s study assistant.
During my years as his study assistant, I completed research for several books; ran errands; and served as bodyguard, driver, and traveling companion, in addition to cooking, cleaning, and waiting on tables. Working hand in hand with Frances Whitehead, his incomparable secretary, John referred to us as “the happy triumvirate.”
Frances was in London on that cold January afternoon when John and I were at Hookses. John had spent the day working through revisions for a new edition of his well-known book, Issues Facing Christians Today. Apart from a short break for lunch and his regular afternoon nap, he had been at his desk since 5:30 that morning. After a 15-minute tea break, he would return to his desk until 7 p.m. No wonder he was weary.
Over tea, we discussed the progress he had made that day and the state of my research on the chapter he would tackle the following day. We also indulged in shortbread cookies (which were known to be an effective treatment for PIM). As he rose to return to work, he patted down the white tufts of hair he had disturbed at his temples and said:
“JY, there are certain tasks which cannot be done without acute pain in the mind. They are rarely fun, but always worthwhile.”
As we celebrate the centenary of John’s birth this week, I have been thinking about pain in the mind. John was an undeniably brilliant communicator, known for the clarity and conciseness of his thought. But his natural gifts did not relieve him of the struggle of careful study and the strain required for understanding God’s Word and applying it in the modern world.
Another favorite acronym of John’s was BBC. He took delight in explaining that this did not stand for the British Broadcasting Corporation, but rather for balanced biblical Christianity. John was not afraid of taking an unpopular stance if Scripture required it. But he never rushed into an opinion. In his quest for a balanced and biblical Christianity, he worked tirelessly to understand every perspective on a topic before coming to a carefully considered 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 time to stop, to study, and to struggle for the sake of teaching God’s people. All too often, we take a side and stick to it without the discipline of listening or questioning our instincts. The thin veneer of our discipleship is showing cracks as a result.
In this complex and constantly changing world, we do not need more commentary. We need more pain in the mind. John was willing to endure this pain, not just in the quiet of his study, but also in the company of others. He understood that the work of preaching and teaching requires the steadfast suffering of careful thinking.
The living room in the small home outside of Nairobi, Kenya, was crowded 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 conversation with Uncle John.
For most of the morning, John was peppered with questions on topics ranging from bird watching to biblical interpretation. Throughout the ebb and flow, however, John engaged each person individually, drawing them out and getting to know those he was meeting for the first time. The study assistant’s job during these gatherings was to listen, learn every name, and take careful notes.
That evening, before bed, John and I met in his room to review the day and to pray. We went over my notes from that morning, making a careful list of books that he had promised to send, a letter of reference he had agreed to write, a question he needed to ponder for a friend, and a pair of specialty pliers (used in banding birds) that he had volunteered to track down in England and ship to Kenya. During that three-week trip to East Africa, there were countless gatherings like this, many of which resulted in personal commitments from John.
After a late-night return to London a week afterwards, John was up early the next morning dictating. When Frances arrived at the office, she had 15 letters to type, and I had a long list of books to package and specialty items to shop for. Those bird-banding pliers took me all over London.
John was a shy and emotionally guarded Englishman, but he was extremely generous in friendship. He had a special concern for the under-resourced and under-privileged, and an abiding affection for young Christians. He would engage in a months-long correspondence with an undergraduate from Burundi just as quickly as he would with the archbishop of Kenya.
And he would persist in these friendships over the years, delighting as they spilled over to the next generation. Such was the story of my own relationship with John, whom I first came to know when I was a young boy and he a frequent visiting preacher at my father’s church.
John’s capacity for leadership 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, extends far beyond the institutions he founded and the movements that he shaped. It is seen most powerfully in the relationships he fostered.
During this long season of isolation and separation caused by the pandemic, I have often thought of Uncle John’s capacity for personal relationships and his unstinting commitment to all kinds of people regardless of social, cultural, or racial barriers. By virtue of his generosity and steadfastness in friendship, he created a thick community around himself of astonishingly different people rooted in the grace of Christ. It’s a marvelous image of what the church can be for a world plagued by division and indifference.
The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students conference in Marburg, Germany, drew students from every corner of Europe and the former Soviet Union. John was the principal Bible teacher for the four-day gathering, speaking each morning for nearly an hour, with simultaneous translation offered through headphones in over a dozen different languages.
The translators were all volunteers, students with little experience who had courageously stepped forward to help. Recognizing what a challenge it would be for them to translate on the fly, John volunteered to meet with these students each afternoon in order to go over his talk for the following day.
These afternoon sessions became the highlight of the week for students and teacher. The eager translators asked for definitions and clarification, laughing often at John’s idiomatic English and occasionally indecipherable upper-class accent. John marveled at their energy and dedication and happily wore himself out making sure they were just as prepared as he was. When he spoke each morning, he slowed his cadence and paused after difficult sentences, allowing time for his new disciples to catch up.
Every evening, the other principal speaker, a noted evangelist, inspired the large crowd of students with amazing stories and incredible energy. English speakers were transfixed. The translators, however, were left behind and wrung dry, leaving non-English-speakers confused and playing catch-up. The talks were a tour de force understood by less than half of those in attendance.
While many leaders are known for their egos, John is rightly remembered for his humility. One of the hallmarks of that humility was his deep sensitivity to the needs of others and his tireless commitment to caring for those needs. Undistracted by concern for himself, he had the mental and emotional energy to attend to those around him.
While some leaders search for glimpses of themselves in the eyes of others, John looked into others’ eyes as windows instead of mirrors, seeking to catch sight of their hearts and minds.
On the final morning of that Easter conference, John insisted that the young translators come out of their soundproof booths and join him on stage in order to be thanked by their peers. It was the loudest cheer of the week, during which John slipped quietly out of the spotlight.
On this centenary of his birth, I pray that God would give the church more leaders like John Stott: leaders who understand the value of pain in the mind, who are generous in personal friendship, and who are humble enough not just to share the spotlight but to step out of its warm glow entirely in order to pass on the legacy of godly leadership to the next generation.
John Yates is the rector of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He served as John Stott’s study assistant from 1996 to 1999.
CT offers a special collection of articles by and about John Stott.