When the Rev. John R.W. Stott died in London on July 27, evangelical Christianity lost one of its giants.
But when word reached Baton Rouge, the Rev. Rodney Wood reflected not just on Stott’s acclaimed scholarship and worldwide influence, but on the humility, humor and kindness witnessed in 27 years of an unexpected friendship.
“John Stott went to Rugby, then went on to Cambridge … I’m a country boy from Washington Parish,” Wood said. “We came from such vastly different backgrounds. I can only say it was a remarkable gift.”
Wood grew up in Franklinton, graduated from LSU in 1972 and moved to Ruston, where he had an insurance business and began a student ministry at Louisiana Tech. He felt a desire to minister overseas, but was not ordained and lacked theological training. In 1983, a friend mentioned the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, which Stott had founded a year earlier.
“I had heard of John Stott,” Wood said, “but, honestly, I didn’t know much about him except that he was a great preacher and author.”
Many clergy would love to be so described. In Stott’s case, it barely scratched the surface.
Stott is widely considered one of the world’s most important clergymen of the 20th century. In 2005, Time magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
As rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London from 1950 to 1975, Stott’s influence extended far beyond his parish. He was in great demand as a speaker, wrote 50 books and played a leading role in the Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, which gave impetus to the global growth of evangelicalism.
A close friend of evangelist Billy Graham, Stott’s influence centered not in stadium revivals but on college campuses. He led weeklong events at universities in many countries, presenting a case for a Christian worldview.He coined the phrase “double listening,” which emphasized listening carefully to the modern world as well as the Bible.
Wood was accepted to the London Institute and a preliminary Pastors Conference.
So, with his wife, Becky, and young sons Jake, Jim and John, he moved to England for a year’s study in 1984.
“When I was thinking of moving to England, I had been told by my friends, ‘Rod, as soon as you open your mouth, you’re finished,’ because I had a real drawl back then,” he said. “I didn’t know how these great scholars in Oxford and London and places were going to relate to a country boy like me.”
Stott did not attend the opening conference session, so Wood didn’t get an answer until attending All Souls Church for a Sunday service, when he joined the line of congregants Stott greeted as they exited. Wood introduced himself.
“He threw his arms around me and said, ‘Rod, my dear brother, how good it is to have you with us.’ I knew right then I was going to be accepted,” Wood said.
That acceptance took many forms. Stott invited Wood and six other students to the tutorial group he led, and had private breakfast meetings to discuss studies, Wood’s writings and less scholarly subjects.
“Those were among the most treasured times that I’ve had with anyone,” Wood said.
Stott befriended Wood’s family, taking them to his simple farmhouse in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where they bird-watched and he regaled them with humorous short stories by Saki, a pen name of H.H. Munro. Later, Wood returned the favor, hosting Stott in his Southdowns home.
“We sat, and he read Saki to us, and he would laugh. I can remember tears coming down his cheeks,” Wood said. “He had a good sense of humor, a very good sense of humor, but he wasn’t a jokester. He just seemed to know how to make the apt humorous comment in the middle of the conversation.”
Stott never married and lived simply in the small flat that All Souls provided him as rector. He would stand at the All Souls door after services and greet all who came, never hurrying anyone along, focusing all his attention on whoever was talking to him. He insisted on washing the dishes when the Woods hosted him for meals in their home. When he discovered Wood one night studying late at the London Institute, Stott crossed the lecture hall and went to another floor to bring him a cup of coffee.
Even in theological discussions, Stott would not throw around his considerable academic weight, Wood said. Rather than insist that his position was correct, Stott prefaced any statement of disagreement with the words, “As for me …”
“ ‘As for me …’ always let (the person) feel respected for the fact that you might see this differently,” Wood said. “The humility of this man, the humility and the respect that he had for all people was so marked for me when I came back at 34 years old. I can just hear those words, ‘As for me …’ ”
Wood’s experience at the London Institute confirmed his desire for full-time ministry. Wood went on to receive a doctorate at Reformed Theological Seminary and was pastor of Trinity Church in Covington for seven years.
He now directs the interdenominational Baton Rouge Gathering of Men, has a chaplaincy ministry at the State Capitol and has been involved with numerous international projects, including the Langham Partnership, which Stott founded in 2002 to train preachers in the developing world.
Wood said he plans to attend one of the upcoming memorial services that are planned for Stott, at which he will reflect not only on a remarkable life, but on how being separated by 30 years in age, an ocean and different backgrounds did not prevent a bond from forming.
“He said to me in 2010, ‘Rod, who could have expected all those years ago that we would have enjoyed the friendship that we have had,’ ” Wood said. “It’s one of the most amazing blessings of my life.”