John Stott died last week, at age 90. When I read it, I almost felt like crying… http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/world/europe/28stott.html?ref=sunday
John Stott was a spiritual grandfather figure for me in my faith journey. He was the first “light” for my understanding of Christian/evangelical social responsibility, and he put into words what was already stirring in my heart. I was a fairly new Jesus follower, and new to World Vision, when nearly 30 years ago someone recommended his books to me, especially his series on evangelical social responsibility published by InterVarsity Press. I led an adult Sunday School class through several volumes, stretching all of us and re-envisioning my own understanding of the day’s issues through this new lens of Jesus’ paradigm. What did it mean to follow Jesus footsteps in a world not just of economic disparity but also of nuclear weapons, of birth control, of the death penalty, and increasing divorce in the church? Stott gently unpacked each issue with non-judgmental understanding for differing opinions, yet with a consistent call to compassionately engage in a world in need. Thirty years later, the Protestant Church has moved, albeit fitfully and protestingly, toward where John was inviting us, following an engaged and compassionate Jesus.
It’s a very hard road, this stepping out of oneself, seeking to truly understand the other, and laying down the cultural assumptions which define so much of what we think of as Christianity. Patriotism/nationalism, party politics, upbringing… all these and more color our reading of the gospels and become cultural blinders which we spend a lifetime trying to overcome in attempting to follow the Shepherd more nearly. Or, as the famous Godspell refrain says it—and which I pray after communion each week: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly.
I had a conversation recently with a conservative friend of mine. He now attends perhaps the most notoriously activist, vocally “liberal” church in southern California, whose pastor I’ve read about in the papers at least since the 1980’s, when this church was taking in refugees from Central American nations whose dictators were supported by the U.S. government. “America, right or wrong” has definitely not been their rallying cry. They’ve probably declared themselves a “nuclear-free church,” for all I know. I would often shake my head reading these stories, but also ponder what compass they were using which gave them the boldness to undertake such unpopular actions. Which means that every once in a while I’d have this fleeting question as to whether this was just a difference in our political overlays or if their reading of scripture had fewer cultural blinders than mine. Could they be right?
So, remembering this pastor’s notoriety, I asked my friend how in the world he came to that church a decade ago from his conservative church background, and how did he feel about this pastor. His answer continues to haunt me. “Cory, I never cease to be challenged by him to care more about people. I’ve never encountered anyone who so consistently leads with love.”
Leading with love, with compassion. That sounds a lot like Jesus to me. Jesus had an amazing lack of need to “hold the line” on so-called moral issues. He loved the woman caught in adultery, he loved the woman at the well who’d had 5 husbands and was cohabiting with another man, he even loved the rich young ruler before inviting him to give away everything which he possessed and which possessed him if he really wanted to follow a new Master. (Mark 10:21)
We on the other hand seem to have a great need to “hold the line” on Jesus’ behalf, and to the outside world, it appears that our judgment triumphs over mercy. Fifty years ago, the church held the line on divorce, removing divorced persons from church leadership and sometimes from the church rolls. We judged those with AIDS. We held the line on women in the pulpit, sometimes barring women in any church leadership position “over men.” Women’s ordination was the impetus for many painful church splits and denominational splinter groups.
We see these hard-line stands as forgivable miscalculations, forgetting the hordes we’ve left shunned and rejected, perhaps permanently, by our principled positions.
When it’s so easy to find examples from as little as a few decades ago where passionate princples were rigorously defended, yet which now seem shamefully backwards to us today, what haunts me is this: In view of that history—and my own history of getting it wrong—what are the issues facing the church today where we are busy “holding the line” yet which in 50-100 years will seem equally absurd? When will our intransigence on Jesus’ behalf once again prove ultimately to be a blemish on Jesus’ reputation?
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an editorial this past weekend about John Stott’s life and his huge, positive impact on Christian thinking and engagement in the world, how he commended Jesus to a skeptical world by challenging believers to lead with love. Kristof also contrasted Stott with some well-known “blowhards”, as he refers to them. To my point, he wonders, “When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed on television whether the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishment on feminists, gays and secularists, God should have sued them for defamation.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/kristof-evangelicals-without-blowhards.html?_r=3)
So what nags me is this: Will God accuse me too of defamation of character? And how will Christ-followers in future generations judge how I stewarded his reputation during my “watch”?
I know a doctor who was sued by a homosexual patient and the ACLU over his refusal to provide a medical service on religious grounds. Millions of dollars, numerous news articles and nearly a decade of court battles later, he lamented with what seemed like disillusionment, “Looking back, as a Christian I’m not sure how good it is to be known for what I’m against.”
Looking back, I too lament for being known for what I’m against. My position has changed over the past 30 years (thank goodness!) on some issues, like women in the pulpit for instance. If I got that wrong then, what am I getting wrong now? And how do I avoid the same hard-line mistakes over today’s issues? I honestly don’t know where I stand on some of today’s hot-button “morality” issues, but my new starting point is to lead with love, to seek first to understand.
Each generation desperately needs gracious yet prophetic voices such as dear John Stott who can help us see beyond our day’s culture wars, beyond our culture, and be confronted once again with the example of Jesus, who is not just savior but also, as Stott himself may have put it, the Lord of Love.
So long, John Stott. I feel as if one of my anchors has just broken off, but my rudder is more firmly set on course because of your life and witness.
Reflections from Afar can be ordered here: http://www.worldvisionresources.com/reflections-from-afar-p-509.html
Use the Discount Code “Cory” for $3 off single copies.