Becoming a truly radical disciple means times of total dependence on others, which God will use to mature us
It was Sunday morning, 20th August 2006, and I was due to preach in All Souls Church, Langham Place, London. I was putting away some clean laundry when I tripped over the protruding feet of a swivel chair and fell between my bed and a bookcase. I knew at once that I had broken or dislocated my hip for I could not move, let alone get up. I was able however, to push the panic button I was wearing and kind friends immediately came to my rescue.
Hugh Palmer, rector of All Souls, found my sermon notes and somehow managed to preach my sermon. Only later did I note its appropriateness. I had prepared an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. It consists of six petitions: three expressing our passion for the glory of God (his name, kingdom and will), followed by three expressing our dependence on his grace (for our daily bread, forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from evil). It had long seemed to me that the second half of the Lord’s Prayer is a summary of our discipleship – our concern for God’s glory and our dependence on his mercy. Dependence is a fundamental attitude for all of us whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer.
Even while the sermon on dependence was being preached, it was at least being partially illustrated. Within an amazingly short time I had been moved, inert, from floor to stretcher, from stretcher to ambulance, from ambulance to hospital bed, from hospital bed to operating theatre. I woke up to find myself gratefully supplied with a replacement hip and in due course I have been rehabilitated. So, as this article progresses, please do not forget my earlier experiences, spreadeagled on the floor, completely dependent on others. For this is where, from time to time, the radical disciple needs to be. I believe that the dependence involved in these experiences can be used by God to bring about greater maturity in us.
Jesus wept – so can I
There is another aspect of the dependence which I experienced which was new to me, which I am tempted to gloss over, but which my trusted friends have urged me not to conceal. It is the emotional weakness which physical infirmity sometimes brings to the surface and which finds expression in weeping. I am not naturally a weepy person, and am generally regarded as a strong and not a weak person, having been brought up at Rugby School, one of those so-called ‘public’ schools where one is supposed to be taught the philosophy of the stiff upper lip, that is, being discouraged from showing any emotion.
But then I read the Gospels and discovered that Jesus our Lord is recorded as having wept in public twice: once over the impenitent city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), and again at the graveside of Lazarus (John 11:35).
So, if Jesus wept, his disciples may presumably do so also.But why should I have shed tears? I was faced with neither impenitence nor death. Was I wallowing in self-pity over my prospect of a slow return to health? Was I regretting my fall and fracture? Did I already glimpse the end of my public ministry? No, I really did not have time to collect my thoughts into order. I had a similar experience of weeping with my friend John Wyatt who is Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College Hospital in London, and has become well known for his defence of the sanctity of human life in public debates on abortion and euthanasia. When he visited me in hospital, we shared our experiences of weakness and dependence and we both broke down in tears. Here is how he describes it:
‘In the first days following surgery John Stott was troubled by episodes of disorientation and by vivid and alarming visual hallucinations. In addition there were the inevitable indignities of receiving nursing care, and concerns about what the future would hold. As we talked and shared together in the hospital, I was strongly reminded of my own experience of severe illness and confusion some years previously. I remember we both found ourselves in tears, overcome by a powerful sense of our common human vulnerability and frailty. It was a painful but liberating experience.’
And here is a second and similar experience, this time contributed by Sheila Moore, my friend and physiotherapist. She describes it as follows:
‘Soon after arriving home following convalescence, John had just returned to rest in a chair, when he suddenly shuddered and sighed deeply. I looked up to see if he was unwell, and realised that tears were flowing freely. He was experiencing an overwhelming release of all the emotional build-up and challenge of recent events, which he had so patiently dealt with as ‘a patient’.
‘There are no words to say during such a deep experience – just empathy and a comforting firm hand on his shoulder. As the emotion gradually subsided, I reassured him that this was not an uncommon experience in such circumstances, and that tears are a very valuable release and form of healing.
‘This completely ‘out-of-character’ experience happened suddenly, as a total surprise causing some shock and emotional pain. It can be difficult to rationalise such experiences, especially for men, who tend to view them as an indignity. But also, if faced with honesty, they can be a wonderful relief. It would be valuable to view these moments as a God-given preparation for the changes in life that lie ahead, and as a special gift from God.’
Humiliation can lead to humility
Let me give you another illustration. The man who led me to Christ during my last years at Rugby School was Rev EJH Nash, known to all his many friends as ‘Bash’. He was a man of outstanding Christian commitment who had a clear vision to win the boys of the top public schools could it be that, actually, Christ wants us to be a burden to each other? for Christ. Through camps or house parties he was remarkably successful. Despite success in this ministry, he showed no signs of arrogance. On the contrary, everybody who met him commented on his humility, and many of us who were his friends were curious to discover its secret. He was very reticent to talk about it but he did divulge it to me.
Bash and I were travelling together by train one day when he told me about his early life. When he was in his twenties he was struck by a serious illness. At its height he thought he was on his deathbed. He became so weak that he could hardly move. He could not even feed himself but had to be fed with a spoon. It was, he continued, an experience of total dependence and at the same time of humiliation. Indeed, humiliation, he concluded, was the road to humility. Having plumbed the depths of utter helplessness, it would be impossible to climb the hill of self-confidence.
Some years later this truth was confirmed by Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury. Addressing a group of people on the eve of their ordination, on one occasion he chose humility as his topic, and his address included the following advice:
1. Thank God, often and always…Thank God, carefully and wonderingly for your continuing privileges…Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.
2. Take care about the confession of your sins. Be sure to criticise yourself in God’s presence: that is your self-examination. Put yourself under the divine criticism: that is your confession…
3. Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly, but they help you to be humble. There can be the trivial humiliations. Accept them. There can be the bigger humiliations…All these can be so many chances to be a little nearer to our humble and crucified Lord…
4. Do not worry about status…There is only one status that our Lord bids us to be concerned with, and that is the status of proximity to himself…
5. Use your sense of humour. Laugh about things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh about yourself, and about your own absurdity. We are all of us infinitesimally small and ludicrous creatures within God’s universe. You have to be serious, but never be solemn, because if you are solemn about anything, there is the risk of becoming solemn about yourself.
Dependence equals maturity
A refusal to be dependent on others is not a mark of maturity but immaturity. A good example is the film Driving Miss Daisy based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry. Although there is an undercurrent of racial tension, the main plot is the developing psychological relationship between the two chief characters, namely Miss Daisy, the stubborn 72-year-old widow, and her African-American driver, Hoke.
The action begins when Miss Daisy crashes her car by putting her foot on the accelerator instead of the brake. Her son, Boolie, tells her that no insurance company will now insure her and that she must get a chauffeur. She refuses but he perseveres until he finds Hoke who has driven a local judge until he died.
In the beginning she will have nothing to do with Hoke. On one occasion she blurts out, ‘I don’t need you, I don’t want you, I don’t like you!’ But gradually as Miss Daisy and Hoke spend timetogether, they grow to appreciate each other until years later she says to him, ‘You’re my best friend. Really,’ and takes his hand.
The film ends on a Thanksgiving Day in the retirement home where Miss Daisy now lives. Boolie and Hoke both visit her but she insists on monopolising Hoke. He notices that she has not eaten her pumpkin pie, and as she tries to pick up her fork, he gently takes the plate and fork from her. ‘Lemme hep’ you wid’ it,’ he says. He cuts a small piece of pie and carefully feeds it to her. She is delighted. It tastes good. He feeds her another. And another.
The film documents the transformation in their relationship from the early days when she refused to be dependent on him for anything, to the end when she is dependent on others for nearly everything.
Ageing is the process which changed the relationship between Miss Daisy and Hoke. By the time the film came to its end, Hoke was 85 years old and Miss Daisy 97. And still today our relationships are subject to change. The late Dr Paul Tournier (1898-1986), the well-known Swiss physician and psychotherapist made his name with his book The Meaning of Persons and applied his thinking to his book Learning to Grow Old.
‘We are called to become more personal, to become persons, to face old age with all our personal resources. ‘We have given things priority over persons, we have built a civilisation based on things rather than on persons. Old people are discounted because they are purely and simply persons, whose only value is as persons and not as producers any more. ‘When we are old, we have the time and the qualifications necessary to a true ministry of personal relationships.’
A steep learning curve
But we must not imagine that dependence is the only appropriate attitude to be adopted by a radical disciple. There are times and seasons in which we are called to the opposite, namely independence rather than dependence. In fact, Myra Chave- Jones, who was largely responsible in the 1960s for founding Care and Counsel, a Christian counselling service in London, has written that the struggle between dependence and independence ‘is one of life’s steepest learning curves’.
Jesus himself taught that dependence grows as we grow. After his resurrection he said to Peter: ‘When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go,’ (John 21:18). John tells us that Jesus’ words had a specific reference to Peter and his death, but they embody a principle of wider application to growing old.
So, although independence is appropriate in some circumstances, I come back to dependence as the most characteristic attitude for the radical disciple. I turn to John Wyatt (already mentioned) for an eloquent expression of the priority of dependence: ‘God’s design for our life is that we should be dependent.’
We come into this world totally dependent on the love, care and protection of others. We go through a phase of life when other people depend on us. And most of us will go out of this world totally dependent on the love and care of others. And this is not an evil, destructive reality. It is part of the design, part of the physical nature which God has given us.
I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. I’m happy to carry on living so long as I can look after myself but as soon as I become a burden I would rather die.’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others. You are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you. And the life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness’. ‘Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ,’ (Galatians 6:2).
Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be propped up when he rolls over. And yet he never loses his divine dignity. And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not, cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us.
John Stott died on 27 July 2011. Read his obituary here