For the Love of the World: John Stott and His Passion for Creation
A few months ago a very important looking letter showed up in my mailbox. Written with the glorious flare that only an expensive fountain pen can produce, my name and address were written brightly in perfect cursive, and the return address displayed the formidable name, title and address of a London barrister. Ripping open the letter, I found a neatly printed check for £1000 inside, along with a note informing me that the former Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott had left this money to me in his will, as it was his wish that each of his former study assistants be given a posthumous gift of gratitude for our service to him.
It didn’t seem right to deposit such a gift unreflectively into our bank account, allowing it to be swallowed up anonymously into our daily expense fund. My wife Sarah and I talked about a symbolic way we might use the money to honor John’s mark of grace on both of our lives. We very quickly settled on our decision: an SLR camera with a fine telephoto lens.
Many people remember John Stott for his books and preaching, but fewer remember him for his love of creation, his ornithological passion, and his knack for bird photography. On the very first day of my job working as his study assistant, I found on my desk a brand new set of binoculars and a copy of “Birds of Europe,” by Lars Johnson (the definitive guide). No study assistant was to work for John unless we shared in his love for birds, or at least could ably feign it. I soon discovered how seriously he took this avocation. In London he would stop whatever meeting we might be rushing off to in order to catch a look at a passing Kestrel. At his writing cottage in Southwest Wales we would begin every Sunday morning at Pickleridge Pools to see the Loons and Cormorants. Wherever we traveled, whether Uganda, India or Hungary, we would always schedule an extra few days to visit the local bird life with the accompaniment of a local expert.
But I also discovered that his love for birds was an extension of his love for creation and for its Creator. Uncle John took seriously the Psalmist’s words, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps 111:2). Taking “the works of the Lord” to include both God’s work of creation and redemption, he would often say that nature study and Bible study must go hand in hand. He was ahead of his time in calling Christians to have a more robust doctrine of and appreciation for Creation, and he viewed having at least one pursuit in the realm of natural history as an outflow of Christian discipleship. Indeed, it is striking that in his very last book, The Radical Disciple, in which he reflects on “some neglected aspects of our calling,” he includes “Creation Care” among Christian responsibilities like Christlikeness and Dependence.1 And as remarkable as his accomplishments were in authoring such influential books as Basic Christianity and The Cross of Christ, it was his much less well known book The Birds Our Teachers,2 which includes over 150 of his own photographs, that he would most often pull out to show visiting guests.
Some criticized John for his theistic evolutionary position and even his appreciation for Darwin, who John viewed as a man genuinely conflicted with how his discoveries could be integrated with his personal Christian faith. But Stott saw no contradiction between his own commitment to the authority of Scripture and his openness to God’s use of evolution in His creative process. He was of course unequivocal in his assertion that “One cannot be a Christian and not believe in creation.”3 Yet believing that Genesis 1 speaks more to the “why” rather than the “how” of creation, John also affirmed, “Those Christians who believe in evolution…mean that the huge variety of animal and vegetable forms can best be accounted for not by the independent creation of each, but by a gradual process of ‘descent with modification’, whether or not Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ is the best explanation of its mechanisms.”4 If anything, for John the possibility of God’s implementation of the evolutionary process was a striking example of the way God does not simply create but is also actively involved in sustaining and ordering His world.
So on the date of John’s birthday, April 27, we used his gift and bought our new camera. Laying it out on the table, I realized I needed a spacious and protective carrying case to hold the various lenses and equipment. I climbed up into the attic and retrieved John’s old camera bag, which he passed on to me after he had his second embolism and could no longer see well enough to take photographs. As I opened it up and examined the various lenses and mounts inside, now too old to adapt to any of the modern equipment, I realized I was holding in my hands the tools of one man’s passion and an expression of his love for his triune creator God. Deeply moved, I picked up my own camera, a new tool for my own stewardship of created life, and headed outside.
1. John Stott, The Radical Disciple (IVP, 2010).
2. John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a lifelong bird-watcher (Angus Hudson, 1999).
4. John Stott, People Our Teachers (Angus Hudson, 2002), 110.
Corey Widmer is Associate Pastor for Preaching at Third Presbyterian Church and Co-pastor of East End Fellowship, both in Richmond, VA. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is currently a PhD candidate in practical theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Before returning to the US for Seminary, Corey spent three years as “Study Assistant” for the Rev. John Stott, meaning he did everything from writing and research to fetching prescriptions and carrying luggage.