John Stott on Prayer
Over more than twenty five years, Miranda and I had the privilege of travelling in different parts of the world with John, usually to help emerging A Rocha projects, but also for birding, his great passion in life. We were also able to welcome him to our home from time to time, and so had plenty of opportunities to see how praying was a fundamental part of his approach to life. Over those years, and not least through occasional adventures (he was once taken for dead by a shepherd high up on a Turkish mountain, but that is another story) we became close friends. As many others will testify, it was really striking to see that his public face was completely coherent with his personal life, and not least when it came to praying.
His intellectual organisation and capacity are justly famous and were no less in evidence with regard to his prayer life. For the more formal disciplines, he typically woke to his alarm around 4.30am (and earlier during the year that he was writing the Romans commentary for an hour every day), swung his legs over the side of the bed to make sure he didn’t fall back to sleep, and then gave his first waking hours to studying the bible and to various forms of prayer, but particularly I think intercession. He had huge numbers of friends and colleagues around the world, and was involved with a wide range of projects and organisations, and so he was very systematic in following the meticulous lists that he made in his notebook making sure that none of those who he took to heart were forgotten. He often seemed to use a weekly rhythm as there were so many people in his life, and we knew from his careful questions each time we met that our family and A Rocha had made it onto the list!
He had a reputation for austerity and emotional reserve, but I never found that to be the case either in our friendship, or in his praying, or our praying together. His experience of God seemed to me to be deep and complex, as John himself was, but he was at ease with the shape of his own personality as well as the rigour of his upbringing and the major demands, all self-imposed, of his working life. In view of his deep personal experience of “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,” I know that he was actually quite hurt that he should have been taken as an opponent of overwhelming encounters with God in the Holy Spirit. His biblical rigour led him to insist on how that was described in many and varied ways throughout scripture, but he was never sceptical about how extraordinary experiences of God could be given to people in particular times and places. Furthermore, it was obvious that he was acutely aware that whatever human gifts a Christian may bring to any task, and his own were exceptional by any standards, success would lie in the power of the gospel itself to redeem and transform people and creation. His reliance on the Holy Spirit infused all he did, and he was one of the great contemporary pioneers of an integrated Christian mind and heart. So, my sense was that his own praying was given to knowing and loving God better, and then, as he was a supremely practical person, to working out what that meant, not only for his own life, but for wider society and creation itself.
Peter Harris is the former president of A Rocha, an international Christian conservation organisation that Peter co-founded in 1983, beginning in Portugal. John Stott was a founding council member and was closely involved in the growth and development of the organisation for over twenty-five years.