Confessions of a Reluctant Neighborhood Bible Study Participant
by Beverly Matiko | 25 March 2022 |
Many people enter their retirement years sure of the hobbies they plan to pursue, the places they hope to explore, and the company they want to keep. When I retired recently, all I knew for certain was that I was done with teaching. After sixty-one uninterrupted years in school, beginning with kindergarten and ending with a satisfying career as a college professor, it was time to change channels.
But the reception on the new channel was decidedly fuzzy. I prayed for guidance in figuring out my next steps. I also asked for help in remaining open and receptive to the needs around me.
While the “Amen” to those prayers was still ascending, I found myself outside one day, chatting with a new neighbor. She was sitting in a lawn chair in her front yard, enjoying the sunshine. A stroke survivor, she is largely homebound due to limited mobility. She explained to me that she was looking for ways to meet and connect with her neighbors. “I’m starting an in-home Bible study for neighborhood women,” she said. “Would you like to join?” Despite the “No way!” thought bubble above my head, I accepted her invitation. “I can do this,” I reasoned with myself. “I’ll chalk it up to community service.” I doubted there would be much in it for me.
Despite a lifetime of urgings from pastors and Bible teachers, I have shied away from anything resembling group Bible study. As a student, I’ve harbored reservations about classes that were primarily discussion-based. The courses I liked best were the ones where, for most of the period, I could attentively listen and take careful notes while the expert lectured. I reasoned that I could always find out what my classmates thought outside of class, but inside the classroom was the only guaranteed access I had to my professors. Their knowledge and witty, wry soliloquies had already convinced me that I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.
To this day, a small amount of Q & A and even less debate goes a long way with me. At the first sign of a radio call-in show, I switch stations. I don’t enjoy confrontation or strongly held beliefs expressed with excessive volume. Sabbath school lesson study at church and discussion-based religion classes often leave me feeling more anxious than blessed. Close textual analysis, logic, and compassion too often seem in short supply. I’ve felt trapped at times, listening to platitude loops play like bad mix tapes.
Rather than studying with a group, I prefer sitting quietly and listening to a well-researched, carefully-crafted homily, or reading thought-provoking spiritual memoirs and essay collections. Presented with the choice of time alone with favorite spiritual writers—Nadia Bolz-Weber, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, Rachel Held Evans, and Anne Lamott—or sitting in a circle of earnest believers with open Bibles and quarterlies on their laps, the choice for me is simple. Give me my books and my solitude or time with a trusted minister any day.
Despite my numerous reservations regarding informal group Bible study, I resolved to do my best to approach this neighborhood gathering with an open mind. About five or six women gathered in our host’s living room those first few weeks as she shared worksheets on sin, salvation, and assorted familiar terms. I found nothing particularly new here, and actually felt a little queasy as I sensed the circling of several familiar fear-based-theology ghosts. The lessons we worked through reminded me of baptismal studies that I imagined my own church offering in the 1950s.
After a few weeks of working through our host’s materials, the group began casting about for what to do next. “Maybe we should choose one book of the Bible and work through it a chapter a week,” I suggested. Someone nominated John’s gospel. Feeling all eyes on me, the only trained educator in the group, I offered, “If no one else wants to do it, I’ll lead out. I have the time.” Nods all the way around secured my role. So much for being done with teaching.
We began with studying one chapter each Thursday morning, then ramped it up to two chapters. After finishing John, we continued with Acts. We read the chapters on our own during the week, and then did an aloud round robin reading of the chapters at the beginning of our sessions. Hearing the Word read aloud continues to be one of my favorite parts of our time together. After hearing the Word, I circulate question sheets that I have prepared earlier in the week during my own study of the chapters, and we chat our way through those for the rest of the hour. To keep the sessions from becoming too much like catechism class, I add some relevant background material gleaned from commentaries and study Bibles. Typically, several women interject stories from their church experiences and devotional life. Our host, a former missionary, is always happy to share her memories of China with us. We pray together at the beginning of our meetings, and bookend our hour with friendly chatter. Our meetings probably resemble many in-house Bible study groups.
After our first few meetings, I felt my initial resistance mellowing. I discovered that I enjoy the reading and studying I do each week in preparation for leading out. Despite my Adventist background and years of parochial schooling, I have yet to read the Bible in its entirety, cover to cover. Some books I have read countless times, but others have been skimmed, at best. I am grateful for the nudge this weekly commitment provides to remedy that gap. This time through John and Acts, I found surprising details that I had either forgotten or missed in earlier readings. Having recently exited the classroom myself, I was especially moved by John’s account of Jesus’s patience and persistence with his motley crew of seemingly slow learners. Honors scholars they were not. I was intrigued by Jesus’s use of both direct and enigmatic discourse with his varied audiences. I enjoyed pondering the stories of transformation, the “aha moments” that characterized some of the encounters that everyday folk had with Jesus. I’ve always adored well-placed epiphanies, or as I was fond of telling my students, “those moments when the truth comes crashing through.” My journalism training regularly kicks in, too, and I find myself formulating follow-up questions that I wish I could ask the writers of scripture and the participants in the narratives. I like to imagine cornering them one day in heaven and getting what radio commentator Paul Harvey used to refer to as “the rest of the story.”
Everything about our Thursday sessions hasn’t been sweetness and light, however. I am surprised to find that many of the things that continue to chafe and challenge me the most about my own church are also present in this inter- and non-denominational group. I haven’t asked outright about church affiliations, but after a few meetings, it became clear that one woman is Catholic. Another is Lutheran. One was raised Pentecostal. Some, having experienced congregational rifts or the need to church-shop after relocating, have found spiritual homes in Community Churches. One participant occasionally references her Salvation Army background. All are aware of my career at Andrews University. They have heard of Adventists, but all they seem to know about my church can probably be summed up in one woman’s observation: “That church on your campus is enormous! I was in it once for a musical program.”
Despite years of being urged to use every opportunity to share “the Truth,” I feel no compulsion to proselytize. On the contrary, it feels like it would be bad form to do so. These women seem satisfied with their church affiliations and their spiritual walks. What binds us together is our desire to get to know one another better and to spend some time regularly reading and studying the Bible. Our meetings help to keep us accountable, much like any exercise, weight loss, or recovery group. Each woman appears to be trying to live out her Christian beliefs to the best of her understanding. At 67, I am the youngest. That’s not a claim I can make many places anymore. I suspect I am the only one with university degrees.
My study mates display attitudes not uncommon among politically conservative, evangelical, midwestern, White Christians. For the most part, the women are kind, jovial, and welcoming, quick to offer assistance to anyone in our group. Where we part company, however, is whenever topics such as politics, race, gender, or sexual orientation arise. I’ve heard comments that I wouldn’t let go unchallenged in the classroom, but I’m no longer charged with guiding young minds. I often remain silent when I hear remarks that I wish I hadn’t. I hope that my lack of agreement is noted. Sometimes I gently proffer another point of view, and then bring our attention back to the verses at hand. I try to ensure that we never overlook the passages that give evidence of Jesus’s regard for women, his attention to the poor, the sick, those in mourning, and even the deceased.
Over the weeks at Bible study sessions, I’ve heard our country’s current president maligned. I’ve heard warnings that we will soon be persecuted for our faith, that the time is coming when we won’t be able to meet in our churches and will only be able to meet in homes—just as we are doing in our weekly Bible study. I had naively and wrongly thought that Adventists had cornered the market on such scenarios. So far, these warnings haven’t included acknowledgment of or concern for the current marginalization, mistreatment, and persecution of people of other races, religions, ethnicities, or sexual orientations. The views of heaven I hear expressed seem to assume Christian baptism as an admission pre-requisite.
It often frustrates, saddens, and even angers me when I hear such views expressed within my own church family. Oddly, I find myself being more patient and charitable with my new Christian friends. Perhaps it’s because of their age. I know from firsthand experience how difficult it can be to hoist oneself out of well-worn thought grooves. I realize that it often takes the Holy Spirit to do the heavy lifting. I acknowledge that each of us is at a different place in our understanding of Christianity. I know we all have blind spots, that the veils we see through vary in their degree of translucence.
While I sometimes hear remarks that make me cringe in my Bible study group, I also am touched by the stories of the work these women do daily for their immediate and extended families, and for strangers. Many of the women serve in sewing circles, soup kitchens, and food pantries. I hear heartfelt concern expressed for adult children and grandchildren who attend church only at Christmas and Easter, or not at all. I listen as individuals, often through tears, voice the comfort they feel in “knowing my departed loved ones are in heaven with Jesus and at peace.” They express their longing to be reunited with them. Those with the most obvious health challenges are adamant about not fearing death. I believe them.
I’m sure many within my denomination would feel that I am shirking my duty by not inserting into our sessions what generations of Adventists have been schooled to label “the Truth.” When we began our studies, our host stressed that she wanted us to focus on scripture and “let it do the speaking.” I respect the parameters she has set. If anyone asks me a particular question about my understanding of scripture or my denomination’s doctrines, I hope I will answer honestly and as best I can. So far, the only such question has been about how and when Seventh-day Adventists baptize.
As our weekly meetings continue, I don’t expect to feel compelled to find or create any “entering wedges.” I like to think that Qoheleth would sanction my approach. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” he reminds me in Ecclesiastes, including “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” For now, I feel confident that I am serving by simply doing my homework, showing up, joining in the reading of the Word aloud, facilitating discussion, directing our attention to some of the most telling parts of the text, as I’ve been schooled to do by years of literary training, and listening. Mainly listening.
Dr. Beverly Matiko is a former associate professor of English and Communication at Andrews University