I remember only too well the first time I met Francis Schaeffer.
I was puttering around in one of my favorite used bookstores--on Locust Street, just a couple of blocks from the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. The cathedral's magnificent altarpiece and Caen-carved reredos--soaring nearly forty feet above the choir and stretching across the entire breadth of the nave--draws me like a magnet whenever I am in the city. The matching narthex and bell tower have always inspired me--a vivid reminder to me of the remarkable flowering of creativity and beauty that the Gospel has always provoked through the ages.
Just out of sight of the great Easter pinnacle there was a little row of quirky stores and businesses. There were a couple of musty antique dealers, a disreputable-looking chili restaurant, a jaunty coffee shop, a bizarre boutique specializing in platform shoes from the seventies, and of course, the bookstore--stocking a rather eccentric jumble of old magazines, cheap paperbacks, and fine first editions arranged in no apparent order.
I had just discovered a good hardback copy of Scott's Ivanhoe and a wonderful turn-of-the-century pocket edition of Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture--both for less than the cost of a new paperback copy--when I rounded a corner and bumped into Dr. Schaeffer. Literally.
I had been reading his books since the late sixties and looked to him as my spiritual and intellectual mentor. Not only did he express his orthodox Reformed faith in a clear and thoughtful fashion, his appreciation for the great heritage of Christendom's art, music, and ideas and his commitment to practical justice and true spirituality made him beacon light of hope to me. In 1948, he had gone to live in the Swiss Alps just below Villars. There in a little mountain chalet, he established a unique missionary outreach to whoever might find their way to his door.
Over the years, literally thousands of students, skeptics, and searchers found their way to that door. He named the ministry L'Abri, a French word meaning “shelter,” an apt description for the function it served to the rootless generation of the Cold War era. It had always seemed to me that L'Abri was precisely the kind of witness that the church at the end of the twentieth century desperately needed.
I'd like to say that at that moment, as I stood face to face with my hero, I was able to articulate my appreciation for all that he had done for my faith and my walk with Christ. I'd like to say that I was able to express my gratitude and then perhaps strike up a stimulating conversation about, say, epistemological self-consciousness or contemporary latitudinarianism. I'd like to say that as the opportunity that providence had afforded dawned on me I was able to think of all the questions that I'd always wanted answered. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Instead, the first thought that sprang into my mind was: "Oh my, he's short!"
My second thought was: "What a haircut!"
My third thought was: "And what's the deal with the knickers?"
In shock, I realized that I couldn't think of a single intelligent thing to say. I had fallen epistemologically unconscious.
Evidently, Dr. Schaeffer could read the awkward consternation in my eyes. He just chuckled, introduced himself to me, and struck up a conversation. Amidst my embarrassed bumfuddlement he was cheerfully gracious and kind. He commended me on my selections and then showed me a couple of other books he thought I might like--a fine paperback copy of Van Til's The Calvinistic Concept of Culture and a rare edition of Schaff's The Principle of Protestantism.
Here was one of the brightest minds of our generation giving of his time and attentions to a gawky young Christian who couldn't even string together a coherent sentence. I later discovered that this was typical of him. Though he was often passionate, stubborn, and irascible, his life was suffused with a clear sense of calling--a calling to serve others. He demonstrated that calling on a daily basis--not just through heroic feats of sacrifice, but through the quiet virtue of ordinary kindness. He believed that the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was best portrayed in the beauty of caring human relationships. And so he listened. He cared. He gave. He put into motion Christ's tender mercies through the simplest acts of humble service.
I came away from that first brief encounter with Dr. Schaeffer with an entirely new understanding of Biblical mercy. With a servant's heart, he treated me as if I mattered. He treated me the way we are all to treat one another.