So there I was, sitting in the cafeteria in Morrisons Supermarket, drinking coffee and reading a book. To be honest with you I was sitting at the back of the cafeteria, at a table obscured from the rest of the store by a pillar, because I was fed up with people ‘giving me that look’ for leaving Julia to struggle alone round the store doing our weekly family shop. For those of you who are not regular readers of our blogs I ought to explain that I recently had a mild heart attack, and subsequent investigations confirmed that I am ‘unique’ as I have ‘complicated plumbing’ around the heart, and therefore I am waiting for heart bypass surgery. The medical people, in their wisdom, have told us that I am not to do anything strenuous – like walking round a supermarket or lifting heavy loads – in the meantime. At 6′ 4″ tall, and weighing 16 stone, I find this medical dictate very embarrassing, especially when people look at me doing nothing to help and obviously think, ‘What a lazy so-and-so!’ because outwardly I appear to be strong and healthy!? For a couple of weeks, therefore, I have avoided our weekly trip to Morrisons and stayed at home instead!
There is a programme on British TV called ‘Escape to the Country’ which is all about people living in towns who want to relocate to a more rural environment. Well, we have been living in a ‘rural environment’ for over three years now … and sometimes we have to ‘escape from the country’ before we go ‘stir crazy’!? Our weekly drive into Weymouth, food shopping at Morrisons, followed by a coffee afterwards, helps to preserve our sanity! We usually pop next door to Beefeaters for a coffee (better quality coffee and ambiance) but today I get to have two coffees – one in Morrisons and the other in Beefeaters!? But I digress …
So there I was, as I said, sitting in the cafeteria in Morrison’s Supermarket, drinking coffee and reading a book. To be even more honest with you I had been getting somewhat depressed since coming out of hospital – primarily because I was feeling so useless! Everyone has been so supportive, so kind and understanding. Julia and Olivia (her mother) have been wonderful, taking on all my responsibilities in the home. Christian friends at church, college, and in the denomination have ‘filled in’ for me where necessary. But it is hard for someone who is normally so active, so ‘up front’, as me to suddenly find life ‘put on the back burner’ for a time. Especially I was beginning to feel ‘useless to God’ because I was ‘stuck at home’ most of the time, preaching and leading worship are now out of the question for the time being, and even when I manage to get to worship on a Sunday I have to just sit there, and can’t even join in the hymns and songs with my usual gusto anymore!?
So, as I keep trying to tell you, there I was sitting in the cafeteria in Morrison’s Supermarket, drinking coffee and reading a book. The book I was reading was The Autobiography of Richard Baxter by J M Lloyd Thomas (published in 1925), an abridged version of Baxter’s own book, the wonderfully named Reliquiae Baxterianae (published in 1696). Richard Baxter is one of my ‘heroes’ – if Christians are allowed to have heroes? He was a 17th century Puritan, the ‘Vicar’ of the West Midlands town of Kidderminster from 1641-1661. It was during his time there that ‘revival’ came to Kidderminster. It is said that when he first came to the town it was difficult to find a Christian family in any given street, but by the time he left it was hard to find a street in Kidderminster where every family was not Christian?! I have a particular interest in the principles behind Baxter’s ministry. I believe that they would still work today – even if his methods would need considerable updating. Of special interest to me, as a Pastor-Teacher, is Baxter’s commitment to Pastoral Ministry (outlined in his most famous book, The Reformed Pastor, which is still widely read today) as against a Preaching Ministry per se. In effect, Baxter’s ministry in Kidderminster was in two distinct periods (1641-42 and 1647-1661), separated by his enforced absence during the English Civil War. The county of Worcestershire (where Kidderminster is situated) was primarily ‘Royalist’ at that time, and Baxter (although not against the idea of monarchy) was essentially a ‘Parliamentarian’ and it was therefore wise for him not to remain in Kidderminster for the duration of the Civil War.
During his first period in Kidderminster (1641-42) Baxter, in common with the majority of his reformed colleagues, believed that preaching alone would bring about spiritual renewal throughout the nation. But when Baxter returned to Kidderminster in 1647 (after the Civil War) he had clearly changed his emphasis to a more ‘hands on’ pastoral approach – ‘personal dealings’ he called it – involving a ‘face to face’ meeting with every one of the 800 or so extended families in the parish on an annual basis. In doing this he enlisted the help of one or two ‘assistants’ but also undertook much of this himself. Baxter still maintained a ‘high view’ of preaching, but for the remainder of his time in Kidderminster gave less time to ‘sermon preparation’ and considerably more time to talking to people face to face. The intriguing question for me, is ‘Why did Baxter change his mind and his approach?’ Was he influenced by any other Pastor he met up with, or read about, during this period of ‘enforced sabbatical’? Was it something God revealed to him since he now had more time to think, read and pray, during this period? For me, it remains an intriguing question? However, I am digressing again …
So, as I was saying, there I was sitting in the cafeteria in Morrison’s Supermarket, drinking coffee and reading this old book, and still feeling pretty useless as far as the Kingdom of God was concerned, when suddenly this bloke comes up me and asks me what I am reading? ‘That looks a very interesting book you have there!’ he says. And it does! It is in good condition but it is nearly 90 years old! It is a proper book – not a paper back or a kindle edition. It doesn’t have a lurid front cover, and you can’t read the title unless you look closely … but it does look intriguing if you are a book lover. It is the sort of book you want to pick up and see what it is about, even if you were to put it straight back down again when you discovered it was about some old preacher guy?! ‘What is it about?’ he asks. I pause, take a deep breath, and tell him! He actually seems interested, so I give him a brief synopsis of Baxter’s impact on Kidderminster – told hopefully in my own winsome and amusing way! I am expecting him to move away, but he actually collects his own drink and bag from the table near mine where he had been sitting, and sits down at my table. We have a fascinating conversation about theology, Christianity, meditation, the meaning of life, and various other related subjects.
We introduce ourselves properly and he tells me that his name is Michael. He is a former Roman Catholic priest who has now left the priesthood but still retains an interest in spiritual things. He also reads a lot and produces a book from his bag that he is currently reading. It is a book about Julian of Norwich, the 14th century anchoress regarded as one of the most important of English Christian mystics. Fortunately I know a bit about her and have actually visited her cell built on to the wall of St Julian’s Church in Norwich from which she dispensed wisdom to various enquirers and seekers through the tiny window?! Michael is clearly a bit lost and, in response to my careful questions, begins to open up about himself. He tells me something of his story and it turns out that we have a number of common links and connections. We even lived near each other in South London at one time. Our conversation moves on to the impact of Taizé, the ecumenical Christian Community in France that draws around 4,000 to 6,000 visitors – mainly young people – each summer. Its unique blend of worship, bible teaching, reflection, and message of reconciliation, is both relevant and attractive. Julia and I have visited Taizé on several occasions and we love it there. Michael’s face lights up at the mention of Taizé … and he produces another book from his bag (a book that he has just bought second hand in a book shop in Weymouth) a book all about Taizé!? I am becoming more and more aware that this meeting between Michael and myself is not just a ‘coincidence’ but rather yet another one of those ‘God-incidents’ that happen from time to time!
Reflecting on my meeting with Michael later on in the day, I find myself thinking about both Richard Baxter’s approach to ministry, and the story (told in John’s Gospel) of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4). We hear a lot today in church circles about the urgency of ‘winning others’ and the importance of being ‘missionary congregations’. ‘Systems’ and ‘methods’ that we could and should employ to achieve this abound?! Now reaching out to others in Christ’s name is really important! It is surely part of what it means for all of us who call ourselves ‘Christian’ to be a Christian, to be Church? Jesus exhorts us on a number of occasions to be ‘salt and light’ (Matthew 5:13-16), to ‘go and make disciples’ (Matthew 28:19,20), and so on! For over 40 years I have successfully ‘grown churches’ numerically and spiritually (not that I take any credit for this, at best I have simply been a vehicle God has chosen to use) but in all that time I have never ever adopted a ‘system’ for doing this. All I have ever done is ‘talk with people’! How encouraging, therefore, to realise that this was primarily what Jesus himself did a lot of the time? That this was what Richard Baxter did in 17th century Kidderminster? Oh to be sure, Jesus did teach the multitudes on occasion, and share with his disciples in a small group setting, but much of his time was spent face to face with individuals! And Baxter continued to preach to a full church every Sunday, but most of his time was spent simply talking to individuals or extended family groups!
Subliminally, I think I have learned a lot from both Jesus and Richard Baxter. For example, in his head Baxter classified people into seven possible groups ranging from the clearly unconverted to the outright rebellious Christian – but he was never able to put anyone into any of those groups until he had spent time talking to them? It would appear that these various ‘classifications’ were primarily for his own benefit, not as some kind of ‘judgment’ on others. Essentially he treated everyone the same! Jesus also took people at ‘face value’, recognising that we are all in the same boat – we all stand in need of the grace and mercy and help of God, whether we have never made any kind of commitment to God in Christ or if we have been ‘on the road’ for many years?! Why then are we Christians – especially us evangelicals – so quick to classify people as either ‘lost’ or ‘saved’, ‘in’ or ‘out’, ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’ before we actually know the first thing about them, and often without any kind of concept that here we are ‘face to face’ with someone who needs to know the ongoing love, grace, and mercy of God just as much as we do?! Take a little time to read through John 4 and see just how graciously Jesus treated this Samaritan woman who was anathema to her fellow villagers then, and who would be ‘written off’ by many ‘church people’ today, I am afraid?! A long time ago I stopped categorising people and learned to take them as they stand. I recognised that everyone needs to know the love, grace, mercy, goodness of God in one way or another – however outwardly defiant or ‘in control’ they appear to be? As Christians we are there to be ‘channels of God’s grace’ to others, but we cannot be this if we approach people with a pre-determined judgmental categorisation of who and what they are?
Another thing that strikes me about both Jesus and Richard Baxter, is that in their ‘personal dealings’ with people they actually ‘spoke with people’ and didn’t ‘preach at them’?! They left their ‘preaching’ in the pulpit or on the mountainside. Preaching has its place … but not in the ‘one to one’ situation. Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, not just to her, and especially not at her! He asked her about herself. He posed intriguing questions. He asked for her help and opinions. He entered in to a meaningful two-way conversation with her. He listened to her – to what she had to say – without already forming a reply before she had finished talking?! And as a result she came to experience God in a new and deeper way … and became the key to the transformation of her village! Richard Baxter adopted a very similar approach in his ‘personal dealings’ with his parishioners. He talked about practical matters as well as spiritual matters. He advised them about health and education when they solicited his advice. He tells us on one occasion that in a 15 minute conversation with one man he achieved more than he had in 15 years of this same man sitting under his preaching ministry week after week!? I have repeatedly found that when you get into conversation with people – and most people are happy to talk to anyone who will listen – and ask them about themselves and their situation, it is not long before they are telling you about themselves and their real needs. What a wonderful opportunity then, to share with them something of the love, and grace, and mercy of God … and at the very least promise to pray for them!?
Eventually Julia, pushing her loaded shopping trolley, finds me in the cafeteria, and it is time for me to go. Michael and I exchange email addresses and go our separate ways. Hopefully what we have shared together will prove to have been of mutual benefit as we both pursue our life journeys? He comes to Morrisons most week to meet up with another friend, who I gather is equally needy, so that they can encourage one another. I am sure that we will meet again in future weeks while I sit there in Morrisons Cafeteria, reading another book, because I am not allowed to do anything ‘strenuous’?! Perhaps we can do proper Cafe Church?! I certainly feel more encouraged leaving Morrisons than I did arriving. Perhaps I am not as useless to God as I thought I was?