I went to my favorite bookstore yesterday. I went looking for George Whitefield's writings. I left work early because it's only open until 5:30 on weekdays and isn't open on Saturdays or Sundays. Not exactly convenient for customers, but that makes a visit more valuable. I might come across good paperback novels at used bookstores or interesting current books at Barnes and Noble, but the books I really go hunting for aren't usually in those stores. Books by Whitefield aren't really selling enough to keep in stock on the shelves. That's why this one's my favorite. It had a number of hard-to-find books that I wanted. I spent way too much.
The owner of the store has to be in his 90s. He still moves around pretty well, but his voice fades in and out. His eyes are clear but curtained with wrinkled eyelids. He's hunched a bit, and his computer is about 15 years young. The database of books he maintains doesn't require a mouse. He rings the books up by hand and adds tax that way too. "Have to give the governor his portion," he told me.
Like I said, he had three books you're not going to find at Barnes and Noble without ordering them, not even at a specialty Christian bookstore. Sure, you can find them on Amazon, maybe, and spend less. But that's lame.
And you don't get to have a conversation on Amazon, or meet a man who's full of life and wisdom, who might tip over if you brushed up against him, who has too much life left, too many books to read to call it quits when he breathes his last. I've always tried to make conversation with Mr Roberts when I come in, but it's only been passing humor. For me it was humor. For him it was passing.
So I was excited at the register when he pointed and said, "I have a reference book over here on Whitefield's writings and his opposers." I pulled it off the shelf. It was three inches thick, on pages almost the size of printer paper. He told me, "I put that together before computers"--in the early 1960s, I found out. He'd visited a "few hundred libraries in this country and in the United Kingdom" to find all the writings. He'd catalogued what they were about and what libraries they were located in.
I've never been that focused on anything, I thought. I started asking questions (they do wonders for conversations!) about Whitefield and Wesley. "Wesley," I said, "seems the more popular of the two revivalists."
"That's because he was an organizer. Whitefield was the real mobilzer. He was the greater preacher. The revivals had already started two years before Wesley's famous conversion. Wesley simply united what was already happening"
"But Wesley eclipsed Whitefield," I said.
"Well, when you're doing the work of the Holy Spirit, it doesn't necessarily result in anything people will remember you for," he responded. "When it becomes more arranged and congealed, then people begin to get credit by association. Wesley coordinated what was already happening."
I just came in for the book, but I found a man who had done his research. Try to find that on Amazon. He told me two stories, one about Wesley and one about a drunk.
"Wesley came to the United States at one point and met a woman," he told me. "He decided he needed to list and compare her positive and negative traits." He indeed sounded like an organized guy. This didn't seem so bad to me. Sometimes you need to weigh it out. "Then he showed it to her. She was understandably upset. But that's the kind of man Wesley was. He dealt with women tactlessly. He was never found to have inappropriate relations with these women, but he just didn't think it through very well."
"Sounds a bit like Peter," I said. "Very impulsive." Those men, captured by God, are powerful forces for the Kingdom.
"Whitefield," he told me, "was a great orator. In a tavern there was a drunk man who decided to have a contest with two other patrons to see who could preach like Whitefield the best. The tavern owner brought out a Bible, spinning it on its spine, and letting it fall open. Wherever it fell open, they had to preach from it like Whitefield. When it was the drunk man's turn, his passage fell open. As he was preaching, he himself felt convicted by his own words, left the tavern, and was never drunk again."
"God's word is a powerful thing," I said. Mr Roberts agreed.
He still travels and speaks he told me, had been in North Carolina just four weeks ago. He told me that he sensed a new religious fervor in young people under the age of 30. "Under 30 and over 65. It's weighted on both ends. Those are the people who are seem the most intent on God's work."
"My parents have said the same thing," I told him. "They sense a renewed interest among the younger generation."
"It's true. The people in between show up, but not with the same investment."
His observations interested me because they were independent of my parents'. He was an old man who you would guess is far removed from the life of culture and current events, tucked inside his tinderbox bookstore. But instead he's engaged and observant.
His observations interested me. You start paying attention when you hear the same thing from disconnected sources. Is there a renewal going on? Is there a zeal reigniting in my generation? Don't we all think that of our own generation--that we are the new hope, young and alive? Yet, here is an old man, on the other end of life telling me this. And I wonder what it means? And I hope he's right. And I wonder whether there's a way I can grab a stick and stoke the fire.