You no doubt heard that J.I. Packer died on Friday, and since then many people have shared their memories and tributes. (See Saturday’s A La Carte for a few of them.) Sadly I never met Packer and never even heard him speak, though I was certainly blessed by a number of his books. But my friend Stephen McCaskell met him on one memorable occasion and I thought it would be fun to have him tell you about it. Here’s his story of serving as J.I. Packer’s mailman.
In 2018, I spent Valentine’s Day with J. I. Packer to record what would be his last significant public interview. This Friday, only five days away from turning 94, he went home to be with his Lord. Within hours, there were many moving tributes to the author of the classic Knowing God, and his impact will continue to ripple across the Christian world for decades to come. That day, his kindness, humility, and light-hearted nature made me feel at ease in the presence of a theological giant.
Our meeting had its roots in November 2017, when I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, solidifying a future project, a collaboration between a nonprofit and publisher. We wanted to highlight the beautiful, practical theology of the likes of Matthew Henry, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards, and Puritan, a documentary on the birth of Puritanism through its present-day influence, became a reality. Our first course of action was to make a list of people we’d like to feature in the project.
One of the first names we thought of was J. I. Packer. He was not merely a student of the Puritans; his lifelong commitment to studying and teaching Puritanism had earned him the moniker “the last of the Puritans.” However, even though Dr. Packer was at the top of our list of hopeful features, I was skeptical we’d be able to interview him. At this time, it was getting close to his 92nd birthday. His eyesight had significantly faded. Everyone else I had been in touch with said it was very unlikely that we’d be able to meet him, but we persevered.
In the first week of February, we got the call we’d been waiting for. Dr. Packer would meet with us…the following Thursday! I cleared out my schedule in a heartbeat. If you have an opportunity to spend time with Dr. Packer, it doesn’t matter what else is going on. You drop everything and get on a flight to Vancouver.
We were set to pick him up from his house and drive him to Regent College, where he had been the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology for twenty years. Driving him to and from the school were the two most nerve-wracking 20-minute stretches of the entire trip. I had two hands on the wheel the entire time, probably didn’t blink once, and accelerated and decelerated as gently as my foot would let me. I felt like I was back in Drivers Ed.
After we made it to Regent College, we had several hours with Dr. Packer. His mind was as sharp as a tack, and his eyes lit up when talking about his love for the Puritans and how they impacted his life. When speaking about John Bunyan, he said, “If I may slip in this admission, I would urge everyone to read Pilgrim’s Progress once a year. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t be impoverished, either.” He talked at length about his friendship with the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who he described as “ the most outstanding Evangelist, apologist, and, quite simply, preacher in all the modes of preaching that England produced during the 20th century. I was privileged to hear him in the flesh and it’s a heritage that I value enormously. And have tried to bear in mind just about every time I’ve personally prepared a sermon.”
As our interview came to a close, I pulled out my Dad’s copy of Knowing God that he studied at seminary in the 1980s. It was worn out, pages yellow and brittle, but Dr. Packer smiled as I showed him how my dad had marked it up from multiple reads. I asked Dr. Packer if he would sign it for my dad, Bill, and he did: Blessings, Bill! James Packer.
After our interview, Dr. Packer remembered that he wanted to check his mailbox. Though he was no longer actively teaching, he kept a mailbox there so people would have a way to contact him. His face lit up when we saw that it was packed to the rim. Just like any of us, Dr. Packer loved mail – and we laughed that I was his mailman, holding the parcels and envelopes from around the world as he locked the mailbox up.
In his seminal Knowing God, Dr. Packer writes, “What will make heaven to be heaven is the presence of Jesus, and of a reconciled divine Father who loves us for Jesus’ sake no less than he loves Jesus himself. To see, and know, and love, and be loved by, the Father and the Son, in company with the rest of God’s vast family, is the whole essence of the Christian hope.” Now, he understands this truth much better than any of us can. He’s having a glorious time with his friend Martyn-Lloyd Jones, and Richard Baxter, Matthew Henry, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and all the Puritans he spent his life learning about. They are worshipping together, proclaiming the truth to which their books and lives testify: Christ is worthy of all praise and glory.