A letter arrived at our house just before Christmas. It was addressed to our then 4-year-old daughter, Anne Tyler; the envelope had two, silly stickers on the back. The letter itself was a single sheet, simply covered with stickers. It read, “You made a card for me, now I have made a card for you.” It was signed, Jim Packer.
J.I. (James Innell) Packer was born July 22, 1926, and died last Friday, July 17, 2020. He was 93 years old. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” writes the Psalmist. None, perhaps, more precious than this. I’m not sure how to go about it, but I plan to lobby the ACNA to add Jim Packer to our calendar of remembrances. He offered himself tirelessly to the cause of establishing this new Province, working to produce the Book of Common Prayer 2019, our catechism, To Be A Christian: An Anglican Catechism, and having previously served as the General Editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible, on which our Prayer Book relies, and which many of our parishes use for worship.
Because I enjoyed the undeserved privilege of calling Jim my friend over the past 20 years, Anglican Compass invited me to write a personal reflection on his life. Others have written tributes extolling his many virtues, gifts, and accomplishments; I simply want to remember his kindness and his gentleness, fruits of the Spirit that marked his life particularly.
His life was a great gift to the Church which he offered humbly and generously. Unlike many of today’s celebrity Christian speakers and teachers, Packer would simply accept speaking engagements as he was able, in venues large or small. I never called an agent and was never charged a fee. I would simply call him at his home, he would check his calendar, and we would pay the honorarium to him that we offered to anyone who spoke for us. He was a pastor, a teacher, a theologizer—a moniker bestowed by Alistar McGrath which Packer embraced, deciding that he really was “an adult catechist,” dedicated to teaching theology systematically to ordinary Christians.
I first met Dr. Packer when he was speaking at a Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. I was a freshman. But we shook hands, talked about a few shared relationships, and I went back to my dorm, amazed that he took time to chat with an 18-year-old kid.
A few years later, he was teaching for the CCO, the Pittsburgh-based campus ministry I worked for right after college. I got to be his host, escorting him to his various assignments throughout the week. One evening I met him at his rooms to take him to the auditorium. On the way I annoyed him with questions that I hoped would mark me as someone who knew a bit about theology and philosophy. While we were walking, we passed by the area where the children were being tended, and we stopped for a few minutes to watch them play. A few kids came over to see us, so Dr. Packer knelt and said to them, “Do you know that Jesus loves you? He does. Never forget that most important thing.” We walked on from there, but I have never forgotten the tender attention and simple teaching he took time to share with children whom Jesus, in fact, does love.
While I was pastoring in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, our family thoroughly enjoyed a few years where Dr. Packer was a regular guest in our home. He would come to Wheaton, our next-door suburb, twice each year for a week’s worth of editorial work at Christianity Today magazine.
Already in his 70s at the time, he preferred not to travel on a Sunday, but to travel earlier and serve a local church on Sunday, preaching to and teaching the faithful gathered in that place. He would fly in on a Friday, spend the weekend relaxing and recreating with us, preach and teach on Sunday, and then head off to CT Monday morning. He was always the perfect houseguest.
The first visit was arranged by my friend and parishioner Mark Galli, then editor at Christianity Today. It was thrilling to have him as a guest and to introduce him to my parishioners. The epistle for that Sunday was from Philippians 4, and he urged us not to neglect the important Christian work of rejoicing in the Lord’s goodness. But it was his second visit, rather the arranging of that visit, that opened a particular window onto his character.
I was in my office at the church one afternoon when the phone rang. I answered and heard a soft, British voice say, “Hello Chip, this is Jim Packer. I hope you remember me…”
I hope you remember me? Are you kidding me? But there you are, Jim Packer was perhaps the least presumptuous person I have ever known. He never felt that the renown his work had earned him was his entitlement to any special recognition or treatment.
Here’s another thing about Jim Packer: that man could eat! I never remember him turning down seconds at a meal, or refusing dessert because he was full. Oddly, he didn’t drink water, didn’t like it at all, but ate his food as spicy as he could get it. Once, at the airport in Dallas, we shared a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Lots of folks, myself included, like a bit of hot sauce on a scrambled egg. I remember Jim drowning his eggs in Tabasco Sauce, creating what looked like a sort of Tex-Mex Egg Drop soup.
Another time, driving from Columbia, SC to Tallahassee, FL for a Prayer Book Committee meeting, we stopped at an old Boarding House restaurant in south Georgia for lunch. At those places, you don’t order, they just bring what they have prepared that day: a variety of vegetables and rolls, and a choice of three meats. Jim chose all three. And when the two dessert options were offered, he asked if he might be permitted to have both.
You’ve seen him, right? In pictures that I have of him and me together, I’m the pudgy one.
A few weeks before that sticker-covered letter—addressed to a 4-year-old little girl who adored this now familiar, gentle guest in her home—arrived at our address, Dr. Packer was gathering his things so that I could deliver him to the offices of CT. Anne Tyler came running down the stairs to give Jim a piece of ruled paper, torn out of a spiral-bound notebook, just covered with little stickers. He knelt, received it as if it were indeed a precious thing to him, and thanked her warmly.
I love to imagine what must have happened a few weeks later, back at his home in Vancouver. In my mind, I see Jim, sitting at his desk in his study, the manual typewriter he had received (instead of the bike he really wanted) as a present for his 11th birthday, on which he wrote all his life, sitting in front of him. He’s scrounging around through his desk’s drawers. “Kit,” I hear him calling out to his wife, who survives him now, along with their three adult children, “do we have any stickers?”
The Church will miss the contributions of a learned and wise teacher, whose life reflected the goodness of the Lord who redeemed him and filled him with his Spirit. I will miss a man whom I was honored to call a friend.
May his soul, together with the souls of all the faithfully departed, through the mercy of Christ, rest in peace. And let light perpetual shine upon him.