John G. Stackhouse (1935-2006): A Life Abundantly Lived
John 10:10b: “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”
Here at Regent College’s Summer School, I was asked recently to preach in the daily chapel service and to preach on something “personal.” So I spoke about John Stackhouse: not me, however, but my father, after whom I was named. Today is the first anniversary of his death, so today I offer this remembrance and celebration .
When my father came to Regent Summer School, as he did a number of times since his son began teaching here, he would introduce himself to those who knew me as “John Stackhouse, The Original.” I enjoyed replying that he was “John Stackhouse, the prototype.” But he was right and I was wrong. He was definitely an original.
In particular, he practiced abundant living as a gift from Jesus Christ. It was the way he did everything: getting deep into things and getting so much out of them. Some key examples:
Dad came from a family with no history of higher education. So, as the first, he shrewdly aimed low: at medicine. He got in (this was back when students applied directly out of high school), and went on to graduate third in his class at the Queen’s University School of Medicine. Physicians among my readers will understand when I say that he broke the heart of his professor of internal medicine when he won the diagnostic prize and then decided to become…a surgeon! (Those of you who watch the comedy “Scrubs” will appreciate something of the tribal betrayal of leaving “medicine” for “surgery.”)
He turned down letters of acceptance from several postgraduate programs, such as Oxford University and the Mayo Clinic, and the resulting career in academic medicine, to do what he really wanted to do: become a very good working doc in a small city. And he did just that, in North Bay, Ontario, and then in Abilene, Texas. But he aimed high there, too, earning fellowships in the Canadian and American colleges of surgeons as he went along.
Dad loved sports, and was a good athlete playing most varsity sports in his small Ontario town. But for most Canadians there is only one sport, after all, and Dad was very, very good at it. I speak of hockey, of course, and if you really want to get into the heart of hockey–to get intimate with it, we might say–you become a goaltender. And for the ultimate contact with the game, you do what he did: play goal in the era before goalies wore protective facemasks.
Dad was good enough to play two years of Junior “A” hockey for the Peterborough Petes, a minor-league team of the Montreal Canadiens. And he had the signal distinction of having his front teeth shot out by later NHL Hall-of-Famer Bobby Hull, and then two weeks later by another future Hall-of-Famer, Stan Mikita. (Neither puck, I point out, went in the net.)
He then had to choose between “signing his card” to formally join the Montreal Canadiens farm system, or going to medical school. He chose medicine—much to my dismay, when I found out about this choice years later!–and played two more years for the Queen’s University team before hanging up his skates as medical school became too demanding.
But in his later thirties, he played for our hometown Old Timers team—players who were, in fact, hardly “old,” but aged just 35 and up, some of whom had stepped down from the NHL only the year before. The team travelled to Amsterdam to participate in the first-ever world championship. Dad’s team won, out of dozens of teams, and he received the MVP trophy with a 1.50 GAA (“goals against average”). Within a year, we moved to Texas and Dad never again had the chance to play hockey.
Dad loved church. And while he was a busy physician, athlete, husband, and father, he also served as elder in our small Brethren assembly–which had no pastor. They needed his expertise: He had taken a whole year of Bible school before university, and thus had more theological training than anyone else!
Throughout his life he taught Sunday School, from high school up to senior adults, spending Saturday nights drawing up massive charts of OT and NT history on rolls of paper taken from his medical examining rooms in order to teach Bible survey courses.
He was even a religious broadcaster—until today, a closely-guarded family secret! When FM radio first came to our small city, the station manager, who was a patient of Dad’s, happened to mention that they needed some community programming to comply with their license terms. So Dad bought a pile of Christian records, read up on hymn histories and composer biographies, clipped excerpts from Christianity Today and other magazines, and for several years drove downtown on Sunday nights to do a half-hour live broadcast of sacred music and commentary—at 10 p.m.
Speaking of music, Dad was what I call a serial fan(atic). An artist would gain his attention, and then he bought and listened to everything he or she produced. Alas, his taste normally ran to light pop. So the soundtrack of my growing up years goes like this: the Ray Conniff Singers, Al Hirt and Bert Kaempfert, the Tijuana Brass, Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, and then Roger Whittaker. I left home at sixteen during the Roger Whittaker years. Indeed, I left home at sixteen partly because of the Roger Whittaker years…! Anyhow, what Dad liked, he loved.
Reading was the same way. And Dad’s theologian and apologist son is forever grateful that, while I was a teen, Dad was devoted to authors such as Paul Little, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis, so I read them, too. (Speaking of loyal reading, Dad is the only person in my family, and maybe the only person ever, who has read all of my books and most of my articles.)
When my mother contracted cancer a dozen or so years ago, Dad dropped everything to care for her. He soon terminated his medical practice, retiring early from the one job he had ever wanted, to look after her as she went through several years of treatment. She survived, but not healthily, and he became her cook, nurse, housekeeper, personal shopper, and full-time companion—quite a change for such a macho surgeon jock as he, but a new role into which he plunged himself thoroughly. It was, in both senses, the ultimate chapter of his life story.
Carpe diem was inscribed on a decorative stone that adorned the desktop of his home study. It sums up Dad’s twin traits of spontaneity and persistence. He was, among all these other things, an excellent swimmer, settling for no less than certification as a Red Cross examiner, and of course this makes sense: his whole life pattern was plunging in, total immersion.
At his funeral a year ago, we heard testimony after testimony of how Dad’s enthusiasm inspired others to enjoy life more. When he was around, every game was more exciting, every bite of food or sip of wine was more flavourful, every conversation was more intense. Dad’s father was an enthusiastic salesman who successfully sold people on life insurance. Dad himself was an enthusiast who successfully sold people on life.
Yes, of course, he was both incomplete and a sinner, and, of course, I recall aspects of Dad’s life that were not entirely sanctified. But today, in the spirit of the gospel declaration of John 10:10, I want to celebrate a life thoroughly, abundantly lived.
Irenaeus once wrote, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” John Stackhouse, “the original,” was fully alive, and he died fittingly at seventy-one years old last summer: at his sports club, between racquetball games.
As a mere derivative (!), I aspire to living, and dying, the same way.
As may we all, to the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.