I was already feeling kinda blue…what with the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Felt even worse when I received the news today that JI Packer was afflicted by macular degeneration over Christmas and that he can no longer read or write.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss for those over the age of 65. The macula is a small spot near the center of the retina that helps to focus on objects straight ahead. Degeneration of the macula does not in itself lead to total blindness, but it can make it nearly impossible to read, write, or even recognize faces.
The disease struck Dr. Packer’s right eye over Christmas, which means (at time of writing) he has only been living with this for the past few weeks. He is unable to read, and therefore he will be unable to travel and speak. Because so much of his writing involves initial working with a ballpoint pen and blank paper, he is also unable to write.
The thought that there would no longer be a book or article from JI and that we would no longer hear a live talk from him weighs very heavy on my heart. We hope that he can still dictate his thoughts for someone to put into print, but things will not be the same again.
I first met JI when I started my studies in Regent in 1981. And while I appreciated the theology I learnt from him, it was his theological method, how we should do theology, that helped me the most then, and the years since. We connected on and off after I left Regent. Kit (his wife) and he came by Penang for a holiday and I had the privilege of arranging his accommodation. I remember chatting with him in the E & O Hotel, on a bench looking out to sea and that was when he directed me to Fuller to do my DMin studies.
I appreciate JI for many things but two stand out — his theological courage and his kindness. Many know him for his book Knowing God (1973), still a classic. It helped so many of us move beyond knowing about God to knowing God personally. But I especially appreciate his earlier book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, written in 1958. At a time when liberal theology was dominant it planted a flag for the authority of the Bible and its central place in Christian life. The worldwide church owes him big time for daring to take a stand for truth even when it was unpopular. In more recent times, he has called the church at large and the Anglican community in Canada in particular (he is Anglican) to repent of a position that endorses same-sex marriage. Of course this is a position that has gotten him into trouble. I pray that I will have the gumption to demonstrate a little of that theological courage in my own life and ministry.
JI is also a kind man. While he stuck to his guns on doctrinal truth, he was willing to reach out and dialogue with those outside his Reformed tradition. Groups like Pentecostals called him friend because he was willing to dialogue with them on the basis of a common commitment to Scripture. This was part of the Regent ethos where we had scholars from various traditions who were united by a common commitment to the Word.
There was also a personal dimension to his kindness. Once I was in Vancouver on my way from Seattle to Toronto and I didn’t have a place to stay. A common friend approached him and he readily agreed to put me up. I will always treasure my time in his home, and the chats we had about theology, jazz, and mystery novels.
Some years ago (2010), Bernice and I were visiting Vancouver and I wanted JI to meet Bernice, to know how the Lord had been so merciful to me and had brought her into my life, and for Bernice to meet a teacher who had been so influential in my journey. We had lunch with him at the Cheshire Cheese Inn, one of his favourite eateries. He insisted on paying for lunch and insisted he would do it again when Bernice and I were next back in Vancouver. I have long decided that the most important people are the kindest and most humble.
I hope that I can take him up on his offer, and that Bernice and I will be able to have lunch with him again. God knows. We have no plans to visit Vancouver anytime soon. And JI will be 90 this year. Indeed none of us knows when we will return to the Lord. But if we don’t feast again at the Cheshire Cheese, we’ll just have to wait to feast again at the heavenly banquet table. In the meantime, I will ask my friends in Vancouver to remind him that we love him, we owe him and we pray for him as he moves on to another chapter of life. One key way I will try to honour him is by trying to run faithfully my part of the race, and doing so with the same theological vigour and with the same kindness.