Wednesday night I was on my own in London. Such a void in the schedule gives me the chance to taxi in from Chelsea Harbor to Central London to Foyles, my favorite bookstore in all the world.
The distinctive, boxy, black London taxi is a masterpiece of western civilization. In no other city can one navigate urban traffic in a cleaner, more spacious, more professionally operated vessel at a more reasonable price. Unlike the usually filthy, dinged-up yellow cabs of Manhattan, often driven as if they were offensive military weapons, a London cab is a parlor on wheels, and depending on how chatty the one is who ends up picking up your fare, it can be almost like a confessional booth. I took seat in my taxi and dispatched the driver to Foyles on the Charing Cross Road.
“Have they got a book signing or a lecture there, tonight,” the driver asked.
“No, I’m just a reader. I’m just going there to browse awhile,” I replied.
“I’m a reader, too,” he said. “I like to read British history and the like. I have a lot of books. My wife grumbles at me all the time. They take up a lot of space, you know.”
I empathized with his spatial constraints and spousal grievances. “Have you tried any of these new e-readers,” I inquired.
“Not really a proper book, is it?,” he objected.
“My sentiments, exactly. Do you have any children who might like to inherit your library?”
“I’ve a daughter. She’s in the university. She may want some of them one day, but I suspect she’ll just sell them all to the auction house.”
“I don’t even like to think of it.”
“Me, neither,” he said. “I’m a keeper, I am. Me wife, she’s a reader, but she’ll buy ‘em second hand, then take ‘em to the poorhouse when she’s done.”
“A better soul than me she is,” I said.
“You and me, both,” as he edged the taxi almost on to the curb to permit the on-coming vehicle to make its way past us on the very narrow cross street.
I said, “About a third of my library is history and biography, a third business and economics, and a third theology. The wife has most of the fiction down in the basement.”
“Theology!,” he exclaimed, “Why, that’s what me daughter’s a studyin’ at the university.”
“I have two sons studying theology.” I boasted. “One son is at a small Baptist seminary in Minneapolis, and another, an adopted son from Africa, is working on his doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.”
“Are they called to be ministers of the gospel?”
“Marshall definitely feels lead to preaching ministry. Dieudonné wants to return to Cameroon to teach in and maybe one day even lead the seminary there near his hometown, but he’s a mighty preacher, and I can't imagine him without a pulpit, as well.”
“Are you a churchman, yourself,” he asked, “a Baptist?”
“Oh, I am a believer to be sure, but I’m not a Baptist. We’re in a small but global denomination called the Evangelical Free Church. It has Scandinavian roots. We used to be Methodists, but felt the denomination had gone somewhat adrift.”
“Aye, as it has here, mate,” he countered. “Here in the UK, the farther you get from central London, the more evangelical the Methodists are. Get into the center of town and you may find a Methodist church, but the people in it will be Methodists first and Christians fourth.”
I regret I didn’t then probe what were the other two levels in the British Methodist’s hierarchy of needs, but instead went on to tell him more about my reading habits. “One of the areas I’ve done a lot a reading in is that of the English Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries.”
“You mean like Richard Baxter and old Sibbes?”
I laughed out loud. This was the tipping point in the conversation at which it turned surreal.
“Yes, and John Owen and Jeremiah Burroughs,” I replied.
“Ah, Owen, The Prince of the Puritans. And Thomas Brooks and John Flavel,” he volleyed back.
“And, later, John Newton.”
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see,” he bellowed.
“And George Swinnock, Thomas Watson and, of course, Bunyan,” I stoked.
“John Bunyan. Was there ever another like him,” he said accelerating through the intersection.
“‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ has sold more books in the English language than any other book but the Bible,” I affirmed.
“And what a story it tells,” he said. “We’ve met every one of those characters along our own ways, have we not?”
The traffic had us stopped, now. The conversation subsided momentarily, then he said, “I’ll go out a limb here, mate. It’s just my own opinion, but if you strip Christian Reformed theology out of the story of Great Britain, you’ve got nothing left in it that would have made her great.”
This from my taxi driver.
“Are you familiar with an American preacher by the name of Tim Keller?” he asked.
“Yes, I am. I’ve read his books and heard him preach a couple of times.”
“I really like what the man has to say,” he replied, “We can’t leave the gospel a hangin’ back in the years gone by. It’s as relevant today as when God first spoke it, and Keller I think does a real fine job of makin’ it relevant to the day.”
“Well, since you’ve mentioned Keller,” I said, “I told you my son was in the seminary in Minneapolis. He’s studying under a pastor there by the name of John Piper. Are you familiar with him?”
“John Piper!,” he said in a ‘stop-the-car’ kind of way that, well, actually stopped the car. “My lands. Piper is the greatest living preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, your son is there at the Bethlehem Baptist Church with Piper himself. Oh, what a special privilege and blessing that must be for him.” He weaved around Trafalgar Square, passed The Crypt at St. Martin’s in The Field and turned on the Charing Cross Road. “We’re about there,” he said, “Say, do you know about the Banner of Truth Trust?”
“Yes, I own a lot of their titles,” I replied. “Whoever endowed that trust did the Kingdom a great service by keeping the old Puritans in print.”
“Have you ever heard of the late Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones?”
“Perhaps the greatest expository preacher of the 20th century,” I said, “I’ve read some of his works and I’ve listened to recordings of his preaching.”
“He’s got a funny voice, doesn’t he?” He slowed the taxi, “Now, if you’re familiar with Ian Murray’s biography of Lloyd-Jones published by the Banner of Truth. . . .”
“ . . . I’ll have you know that this little church right here on our left was the very church in which The Great Doctor himself was married to his beloved wife. Right there.”
The building was but a dark, unlit interruption of the architecture on a block otherwise sparkling with the lights and adornments of the London Theater District. Still, it seemed to me more spectacular that it should suddenly present itself at this point in our conversation than all the neon blinking up and down the marquees of the Charing Cross Road.
“Well, here we are,” he said as he punched the meter to calculate my fare. As I fumbled for my billfold, he said, “You know, mate, there probably aren’t but a handful of people in all of this great city who would have the slightest idea or notion of what you and I have just been talking about. What are the odds that you and I would end up in the same taxi on this night?”
Through all of this short but meandering journey, I had only ever heard his voice, seen the back of his head and occasionally his bespectacled eyes, as lamp posts made them apparent to me through the rearview mirror. Now, I was out of the taxi, standing on the curb alongside the driver’s side door, finally looking him straight in the face.
“It was God’s will,” I said with a smile as I handed him my fare.
He chuckled and shook his head in astonishment. “It was God’s will. Indeed.”