Friday, March 18

Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri

Fifty years ago this month, Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded a little ministry high in the Swiss Alps called L'Abri. It was a work that would ultimately, by God's grace, transform the Evangelical world--and it was a work that would ultimately, likewise by God's grace transform me.

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 has 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 Eastern pinnacle is a little row of quirky stores and businesses. There are 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 serve as an evangelist in the Swiss Alps just below Villars. Seven years later, frustrated by the strictures of the rather conventional approach to ministry he had been practicing, he established a new and unique outreach in his little chalet: he and his family would become hosts, apologists, teachers, mentors, and friends 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. Schaeffer 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--and at the beginning of the twenty-first--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. 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 old hardback copy of Henry Van Til's The Calvinistic Concept of Culture and a rare edition of Philip Schaff's The Principle of Protestantism.

Here was one of the brightest minds of our generation giving 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. Later when I visited L'Abri or ran across him at conferences, he actually remembered me. He was faithful to correspond with me. He demonstrated in both word and deed that he really did practice what he preached: there are "no little people."

For all his books, for his various film series, for his many taped lectures, and for the ongoing work of L'Abri--now in many locations around the world--I am deeply grateful. But, it will always be that afternoon in St. Louis--and those personal connections in the years that followed--that will serve as the authentication for all the rest. Another of my mentors, Bill Lane always used to say, "When God gives gifts to the church He always wraps them in people." Thus, it will always be for Dr. Schaeffer himself, that I am most grateful.


Tom said...

Excellent insight!! It is always helpful to see someone's faith in action, because it confirms that the ideas are practical and the proponent of those ideas believes in them enough that the first book they published on those ideas was themselves.

Tom said...
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