Pottering and Prayer
As John Stott turns 80, he still finds weeds to pull, birds to watch, and petitions to make
April 2, 2001
That first morning, as I walked into John Stott's bedroom (my office during daylight hours), I found his 10-page, handwritten manuscript on my desk with a note: "This is an interview for a book written for single people in their 20s. Could you give me your feedback on what I've said, and suggest any changes to make it more interesting or relevant?" Not certain the thoughts of this 21-year-old were of any value, I nevertheless carefully read through the manuscript and listed several suggested additions, deletions, and modifications.
The next morning, there again on my desk was the manuscript and a note: "What do you think now?" The interview had been rewritten—and every single suggestion employed. Britain's world-renowned, 75-year-old writer and teacher had consented to every piece of advice from a recent college graduate on his first day of work.
I had learned a key characteristic of John Stott: his disarming humility.
John Stott turns 80 years old on April 27. Known principally for his writing (almost 40 books) and preaching, Stott has been one of the most influential leaders of world evangelicalism in the last 50 years. Much has been written about Stott's theology and his influence on evangelicalism worldwide, with little attention paid to his personal life.
As his study assistant from 1996 to 1999, responsible for everything from research to making tea and running errands, I have often been asked what personal qualities make Stott the man he is.
Of the many characteristics I could mention, these struck me most: his humility, his discipline of prayer, and his balance of work and play.
You notice his humility first in the priority he gives to others. To speak with him briefly after church in a crowded hallway is to be the absolute center of his attention. To visit him for a meeting is to be welcomed into his home and offered a cup of tea out of his own hands. A handwritten letter from a young pastor in Nigeria gets a handwritten response.
"Humility is not another word for hypocrisy; it is another word for honesty," Stott says. "It is not pretending to be other than we are, but acknowledging the truth about what we are."
With a keen sense of the "paradox of our humanness," he recognizes that we are at once the most glorious creatures in all of creation, redeemed by Christ, and at the same time rebellious, God-scoffing sinners.
This might be a distant theological concept for some, but for Stott it is a fundamental principle, one lived out in the day-to-day details of a busy life.
First things first
The day begins for Stott at 5 a.m. He swings his legs over the side of his bed and starts the day in prayer:
Good morning, heavenly Father; good morning, Lord Jesus; good morning, Holy Spirit. Heavenly Father, I worship you as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world. Holy Spirit, I worship you, Sanctifier of the people of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more. Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you. Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me. Amen.
For decades, Stott has begun each day with a version of this Trinitarian prayer.
There is a small leather notebook, stuffed full of folded papers and pamphlets and held together by a strong rubber band, that travels as a twin with Stott's Bible. Each morning, having read three chapters of Scripture and meditated prayerfully over them, he pulls out his prayer notebook, takes off the rubber band, and prays for friends, family, ministries, and even strangers.
Inside the notebook is a daily prayer list that is under constant revision. In minuscule print, the pages are divided into four columns: for evangelism or new converts, for people who have decisions to make, for the sick and bereaved, and for miscellaneous requests.
Each day he reads through, prays over, and amends these four columns. Beneath the columned pages is a short stack of prayer guides. Stott prays daily through the requests of up to seven different organizations to which he is connected.
Finally, having worked through the various handouts and pamphlets, he comes to an old, well-worn page with a handwritten one- month calendar. Each day has a list of names, some dating back 30 years, some just a few months.
For Stott, prayer is the rhythm of each day. From the discipline of regular intercession in the morning, to spontaneous prayer at the end of a pastoral visit, to bent knees shortly before bed, each day is marked by simple, unpretentious, direct, and persistent prayer.
Work as play
Any day that starts at 5 a.m. and finds one seated at the desk shortly after 6:30 is bound to be full. Most of Stott's daylight hours are spent at a desk, in front of a podium, or in meetings. This doesn't leave much free time for fun and games. Nevertheless, he is a great believer in a balanced life.
This became most evident when Stott was at his cottage home on the southwest coast of Wales, where for nearly 50 years he spent three months of the year. There he took time away from London to study and write at the Hookses, a 19th-century farmhouse with sizable grounds that was in constant need of upkeep and repair. He devoted an hour or two of every afternoon to such "pottering."
One of the great pottering traditions at the Hookses was to clean out weeds and other unwanted vegetation from a small fish pond. This duty was usually shared by Stott and his study assistant and any other willing volunteer who happens to be visiting. Wearing knee-high wading boots, his sleeves rolled up as high as they can go, he traversed the length and breadth of the pond pulling up weeds.
Perhaps few sights were more surprising to the uninitiated than John Stott wearing grimy clothes, up to his knees in cold water, grinning with satisfaction as he repeatedly shoved his bared arms underwater to grab handfuls of weeds and cast them onto shore.
Then there was his predilection for washing dishes. Because he makes no contribution to the preparation of food, Stott insisted that he be allowed to do the accumulated dishes of the day after the evening meal. Defiant volunteers unwilling to see him spend half an hour washing dishes may have objected, but in this matter he always got his way.
To observe Stott washing dishes was to witness the surprising combination of a meticulous mind with the playfulness of a child in the tub. Each dish was vigorously scrubbed in the left-hand sink, then summarily plopped into the other side filled with hot water for rinsing. The hapless volunteer who had assumed the job of drying received a splash and a chuckle with every dish.
By the end of the cycle, the volunteer was soaked, while Stott whisked off his plastic apron, as dry as the moment he started.
Chirping at sunrise
Perhaps the greatest passion in Stott's life outside of the Bible is his enthusiasm for birds. On a recent visit to Thailand, he began three busy weeks of teaching and preaching by getting up at 3:10 a.m. the first day to drive two-and-a-half hours to a game reserve. He wanted to greet the early-morning birds at the rising sun.
During the remainder of this trip, on half-a-dozen separate occasions, he organized special outings to tramp around in the marvel of nature with binoculars in hand and eyes turned upward. Some may be tempted to see this kind of devotion as fanaticism; others, who know the man, see it for what it is: praise.
Laughter, mischief, simple labor, and a love for the natural world all form the balance of Stott's disciplined life. The fish pond is right outside the study window, the dirty dishes are just a few rooms away, and the birds are everywhere.
There is no special secret to Stott's success, or one characteristic that makes the man. Rather, those who have the chance to enter into his life, to watch and to listen, come to know a man of gentle humility, regular prayer, and—for someone so diligent at work—a surprisingly balanced life.
John W. Yates III is coauthor, with his brother, Chris, of The Incredible Four-Year Adventure: Finding Real Faith, Fun, and Friendship at College (Baker).
Stott's Emerging Legacy
Though most famous for his writing and preaching, John Stott's greatest long-term influence may come through one of his lesser-known projects: the U.S.-based John Stott Ministries (www.gospelcom.net/stott/), part of the Langham Partnership.
The ministry supports men and women from all over the developing world,
helping them work toward doctoral degrees. These scholars return to their home countries and teach in local seminaries and Bible colleges.
Along with awarding scholarships, John Stott Ministries buys books for seminary libraries, seminarians, and pastors. The ministry's New Millennium Fund has raised $3 million recently, but Stott hopes to raise another $1.5 million before his 80th birthday on April 27.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See also today's related article, "The Quotable Stott | Reflections on the occasion of John R.W. Stott's 80th birthday."
For Stott's 75th birthday, Christianity Today published David Wells's article, "Guardian of God's Word | The amazingly balanced, wise, biblical, and global ministry of a local pastor, John Stott."
John G. Stackhouse Jr. reviewed Stott's Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness for Christianity Today's February 7, 2000, issue.
Books & Culture also recently published a lengthy article on Stott's importance to the evangelical movement: "Basic Christianity—with an Oxbridge Accent | John Stott and evangelical renewal.
The John Stott Ministries site offers excerpts from Stott's works, "Stott Daily Thought" and "Stott Bible Study" newsletters, a biographical sketch, and his speaking schedule.
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